What Does God Want to Do in Your Community?

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (James, the brother of Jesus)  Acts 15:19

Several weeks ago Mark Thomas, our district’s Associate Superintendent for Church Revitalization, challenged me to ask God what he wants to do in Clarkfield. I readily agreed to do so, but this is a different kind of prayer for me. I’m not accustomed to praying open ended questions. My first several attempts at this prayer were hesitant and awkward. As a result, I’ve experienced a few uncertain moments in prayer. As time has passed, this prayer has become a bit more familiar. Almost from the beginning, I lengthened the pre­­scribed prayer about what God wants to do in Clarkfield by adding, “What is my role in it?”

I have no idea how God might answer such a prayer. He’s not obligated to answer at all, much less with definitive statements. By nature and by training, I don’t traffic much in the murky, mystical world of direct revelation. I’m not about to assert, “I’ve heard from God!” I don’t trust my motive or my maturity nearly enough for that. If I were to announce, “God has told me we are to do such and such in Clarkfield,” it would place the congregation in a difficult position. They would have no way to prove God spoke to me. And they would have no way to prove God didn’t speak to me unless I came out with something plainly out of order. A divine whisper is impervious to both falsification or verification by those who didn’t hear it. The Apostle John warned his readers not to believe everything they hear, but instead to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).

A couple weeks ago, I asked the C&MA prayer area pastors how God might answer such a prayer. Micah Siebert, the pastor at Redwood Alliance Church in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, responded, “I would expect that you would hear things that are universally true.” He quickly added that the answer must be hinged to Scripture.

That interests me because an answer to my question has begun to form in my mind, based on a single Bible verse which is cemented in my mind. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.“ (Acts 15:19)

I believe God wants to make it as easy as possible for lost people in Clarkfield to turn to Jesus. Again, I certainly don’t claim God has been speaking to me with those words. But there is universal truth in this powerful verse (and its context) which keeps returning to my thoughts. To be fair, this verse has been on my mind much longer than I’ve been praying the prayer Mark Thomas asked me to pray. It’s a judgment from the lips of the Apostle James. It articulated the conclusion of the first council of the church, which was called to address false teaching which had circulated in the early church. This definitive statement reduced the complexities confronting the early church in Acts 15 to their lowest common denominator. This verse has been forefront in my mind ever since I read Andy Stanley’s account of how Acts 15:19 has impacted his life and ministry. Here’s what he wrote:

I love that [Acts 15:19].

Imagine where the church would be today if we had kept that simple idea front and center. Years ago, I printed that verse and hung it in my office. Before long it started showing up on walls and plaques in all our churches. I look at it every day. Perhaps James’ statement should be the benchmark by which all decisions are made in the local church. The brother of Jesus said we shouldn’t do anything that makes it unnecessarily difficult for people who are turning to God….” (Andy Stanley, Irresistible, p. 124)

In recent years I’ve become more aware of how the American evangelical church often makes it unnecessarily difficult for those far from God to come to Christ. Some of these observations have become recurring themes in my leadership: politicizing the gospel, verbal abuse of out­siders, legalism, judgmentalism…. We can add to that list a failure in the church to discern truth from lies in the age of social media and disunity within the body of Christ. Ugly church fights make it difficult for outsiders who are turning to God, especially when true believers embrace false conspiracy theories (cf. Acts 15:1-6). When the gospel is garbled inside the church, it’s very difficult for those outside the church to turn to God.

So I have to ask myself:

What am I doing that is making it unnecessarily difficult for lost people who could be turning to God?”

“What can I do that will make it easier for them?

We need programs, but programs alone won’t remove the unnecessary obstacles outsiders face. The challenge facing our local church (and many other churches) is deeper than a need for more programming. For example, beyond the culture gap, there is a pronounced generation gap between our church and the community of Clarkfield.

I often think of Clarkfield as an old community of senior citizens. But the data says there are many others, too. A high number of children live in Clarkfield, well above the national average. I often think of Clarkfield as a poor area of high unemployment or low wages. But the data says otherwise.

We could add another twist to this exercise. Even if I’m running properly with Acts 15:19, that may be just a slice of the complete picture. What if God wants to do some­thing in Clarkfield that has escaped my radar? What if I have a blind spot? For example, how might our brothers and sisters in the Hispanic church across town answer the same question about what God wants to do in Clarkfield? What they hear from God might be very different from what I hear from God, even if it’s universally true and based on Scripture. I believe more voices, including diverse voices, are helpful, even necessary, for the church to discern what God wants to do in Clarkfield.

I invite you to participate in the prayer challenge from Mark Thomas.

What does God want to do in your community?

How can you be a part of it?

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Antlers, The Movie

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. (Matthew 1:18)

In addition to my ministry at New Life Church, I teach music at Clarkfield Area Charter School. Our winter program was canceled this month due to the renewed COVID-19 pandemic. So instead of doing a live performance in an empty gym, we made a movie for people to view online. The students had a great time rehearsing and recording. The school’s staff was generous with their encouragement and support.

The protocols for teaching in a public school make it difficult to emphasize Jesus’ birth with the students in class as the origin and meaning of Christmas. We can have fun together creating a secular program and build relational bridges that ultimately lead to valuing God’s love rather than fantasy. If we don’t have Jesus at Christmas, all that remains is a fantasy. We need Jesus to find a purpose in the holiday. Yet I have no criticism against a secular Christmas program. That’s all the school can offer in a postmodern world. Secular activities may be incomplete, peripheral, and even irrelevant. But they’re not morally wrong. Childhood includes fantasy, especially at Christmas.

The movie is about three magic reindeer who dreamed of designing fashions for antlers instead of flying Santa’s sleigh. I confess I was disappointed in the plot when I first read it. It has nothing to do with the real Christmas. The plot was boring to me, but the students loved it immediately. I don’t know anything about clothes, fashion designs or style shows. I didn’t need to know anything about that to make a movie about it. The students understood it all intuitively. This is their world, I guess.

The students loved watching their own movie in music class this week. They applauded after every scene and song. But their wildest reaction came when they saw their names in the credits. The room erupted in uninhibited jubilation. They had worked hard on their movie. They are due credit for that.

After this emotional high, music class will feel awfully dull for the students in January. I’ll tell them what I always do. “Today is a work day. We’ll have a fun day another time. Work comes first.”

This week we had a fun day. It followed a lot of work days.

Merry Christmas!

Mundane & Miraculous

The entrance of Jesus into the world was a messy, convoluted series of miracles wrapped in mundane events. An elderly priest and his barren wife unexpectedly became first-time parents. An obscure girl in a remote village anticipated her wedding. Then an angel interrupted her plans with shocking news. Her wedding was called off, then put back on. The long trip after their wedding was not a honeymoon. What is more mundane than paying a census tax?

If you miss the miracles in the birth of Jesus, you’re left with only the mundane. Zechariah the priest missed the miracle in the angelic message. As a result, he couldn’t speak for months. The innkeeper missed the miracle in  the expectant couple he turned away. He slept away the one night in his life he should have been awake. King Herod missed the miracle, too. As a result, innocent babies in Bethlehem paid the ultimate price for a non-existent threat against the evil king. Mothers wept.

Christmas is a blend of mundane and miraculous. God interfered with human affairs. But it was easy to miss the miraculous. Most people who were there at the time missed it.

On December 17, 1903, Orville & Wilbur Wright achieved the first powered, controlled and sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine. They immediately sent a telegram to their father in Dayton, Ohio. It read, Success. Four flights Thursday morning. All against twenty-one-mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest fifty-nine seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas. Their sister Katherine rushed to the Dayton newspaper office and thrust the cable to the the editor. He read it, smiled and said, “Well, well, how nice. The boys will be home for Christmas!”

Dick Innes has pointed out that the editor totally missed what could have been, for him, the news scoop of the century. He didn’t print the amazing story of powered flight in his newspaper. The editor saw only the mundane, not the miraculous. He did not print the first newspaper story about two local citizens who had invented a flying machine.

For many people, December is the hardest month of the year. It can be dominated by shopping, baking, decorating, family gatherings, and often travel. By New Year’s Day many people need a vacation from their holiday vacation. Toil and exhaustion are rampant this season. We can’t escape the mundane at Christmas. Please don’t miss the miraculous.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds were lost in a mundane task when Jesus was born. It was the first Christmas. Don’t miss the miracle:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

 

Name Games

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:31-33)

Shortly before my dad died, I asked him why he and mom had named me “Douglas.”

Dad replied with clear irritation in his voice, “Oh Doug, I don’t remember.” No doubt, it wasn’t important to him. Prob­ably not back then. Certainly not now. End of conversation.

“Douglas” is a fairly obscure, though not rare, handle. It’s listed on one website as a unisex name, though I’ve never met a girl named “Douglas.” The name comes from Scottish and Gaelic ori­gin, meaning “dark or black river.” It was most used as a name for boys in the 1940s and 50s, probably because of the fame of Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas MacArthur.

“Douglas” climbed as high as 44th on the baby name chart a few years before I was born. Since the 1950s, use of the name “Douglas” has fallen to 1531st position. Not a winning name for babies born in the 2020s!

I’d guess most Americans are named for four reasons: 1) to honor a relative or family friend, 2) to mimic the name of a famous person, 2) to reflect the name’s etymo­logy, especially religious names, or 4) the parents simply like the sound of the name. Sometimes alliteration plays a role in choosing a baby’s name. If all the children in a family bear the same initials, it’s probably not an accident!

Several years ago I read an article about interesting names for people. Here are some of them: Candy Barr was living in Vermont. April May March was a teenager in Tennessee. Country Musick lived in Davenport, Iowa. Heaven Leigh Friend was a teen in Kansas City, Missouri. Blue Hothouse was a pastor in Oklahoma. James and Ethel Outlaw were living in Georgia and had been married for 66 years. That’s a case when the in-laws really were Outlaws!

As a child, my wife knew a family which included a girl named Mid Knight and another family which included a Candy Dish. Unfortunately, the girls suffered occasional ridicule for their funny names.

In ancient times, names involved a whole lot more than alliteration and attempts at humor or word play. They carried a designation of character or future prophecy. The writers of Scripture recorded many names which indicated significant meanings. Sometimes people were renamed to reflect a major change in their destinies: Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. Simon became Peter (Cephas). Saul became Paul.

Most meaningful of all biblical names are the names and titles assigned to Jesus. They were not humorous, yet Jesus suffered ridicule because of them. A study of the names of Jesus is rich and complex. Here’s quick flyover:

Jesus is the name given to the baby born of Mary (Matthew 1:21, 25). “Jesus” is Greek for the Hebrew name “Joshua” (Yeshua). It means “The Lord saves” or “The Lord is salvation.” The Apostle Paul designated Jesus as the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Savior is a title derived from the name Jesus. The Apostle Peter described Jesus as Savior when he was put on trial before the Sanhedrin: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12

Christ (or Messiah) is a title attributed to Jesus over 500 times in the New Testament. It means “anointed one” and refers to three key anointed offices in Israel which the Jesus fulfilled: Prophet, Priest and King. As prophet, Jesus spoke to the people for God and as God. As Priest, Jesus spoke to God for the people and offered himself as a sacrifice for the people on the cross. As King, Jesus rules the church and will rule in a future kingdom. His kingdom is both “now and “not yet.”

Immanuel (or Emmanuel) is a name given to Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy by Isaiah. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:22-23)

The Word of God is a name of Jesus attested by the Apostle John in a vision of the end times. Its significance includes Jesus as our creator (John 1:1,14) and his rule over creation: He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:13-16)

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace is one of the most complete names of Jesus. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6). In this array of titles, Jesus is both personal and powerful; he is both perpetual and peaceful.

I AM is a name of divinity claimed by Jesus himself (John 8:58). His enemies regarded it as stunning blasphemy. In fact, it would have been blasphemous were it not true. It’s the name of God himself, the self-existent one. It’s translated in our Bibles as The LORD or The LORD GOD. In Hebrew the name is YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah). This name is so holy that the Jewish people would not pronounce it when they came to it in their Scriptures. Yet Jesus applied the name to himself.

Moreover, Jesus added attributes to the Lord’s name. He said, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the door (gate).” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “I am the true vine.” (John 6:35, 8:12, 10:7, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1)

How rich are the names of Jesus! He is the most unique Person who has ever lived. His name is not a game; it’s a game changer. Let’s bow before Jesus and worship him as our Creator, our Savior, our Messiah, our Immanuel, our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace, our King!

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Revelation 21:6-7)

Words of Encouragement

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)

This afternoon I received an email from a man I don’t know and have never met. I almost missed it. The missive landed in my junk folder and I happened to retrieve it from the genuine junk mail. Colin Green is a Canadian who serves with Grace for Life Ministries. His ministry strategy is fourfold: 1) Counseling to Pursue God’s Grace, 2) Teaching to Present God’s Word, 3) Speaking to Persuade God’s People, and 4) Writing to Promote God’s Truth. All four of those strategies are worthy and can be effective, but it was the last one which connect Colin Green to me – his writing.

Colin Green’s email noted that God is sovereign, calm, and in control. He offered prayer and encouragement to stay the course of ministry. Beyond that, he attached an electronic postcard that is like apples of god in settings of silver. Here is what he penned:

Like you, I am watching our world with a sense of horror as the events of each day compound into a loss of anything that feels normal, let alone right and good. Political divisions are fueled as constitutional laws clash with ideological and social justice movements which are then set ablaze by politicians and the media. Major cities are experiencing heightened numbers of homeless people, poverty, and crime. Resources to deal with these problems and the will to consider commonsense solutions are shrinking rapidly. I am aching for Afghanistan and fear especially for the Christians there. I am listening to reports from Haiti as yet another wave of painful devastation washes over it. There are fires, droughts, floods, and the list goes on.

Q: What are we to do? A: Stay the course.

While the things of this world have become less predictable and more unstable everyday, the mission of the Church and our calling as her ministers is clearer than ever. Now is not the time for us to wonder or wander. People need the Lord! They need to meet God, learn his Word, trust in His Son, and walk by grace through faith…. Do not lose heart….. Trust God, build the church, win the world, and press on!

The week following the back-to-back Haitian earthquake on Saturday and the collapse of Afghanistan on Sunday has been surreal. Our northern neighbor is much further geographically from stricken Haiti than the United States. I don’t know about Canada’s political or military connection to Afghanistan. But the words of a Canadian Christian resonated with me today. I hope they will encourage you as well.

Our nation is in shock, but not merely as much as the devastated populaces of Haiti and Afghanistan. These are all people whom God loves. Our prayers are with them and for them. We also pray for those who are in the front lines of relief and rescue efforts in both nations. As near as I can tell, our greater church family (The C&MA) is not operating in Haiti. But other relief organizations are working there. If you want to help, you can provide financial support or volunteer to join a work team.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26-27)

The 10-90 Rule

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12)

Since the 1980s, I’ve heard about the “80/20 rule” in ministry. The bottom line is that 80% of church people will do 20% of the work and 20% of the people will do 80% of the work. Likewise, 80% of the people will give 20% of the money and 20% of the people will provide 80% of the budget. Comparably, church gurus advise pastors to give 80% of their time to 20% of the people and 20% of their time to 80% of the people. Actually, Jesus followed a similar pattern. He invested more of his time with his inner circle of committed disciples and gave less of his time to curious crowds.

A few years ago, I started reading about the “98/2 rule.” I think it applies more to business than to church. But in an age of megachurches and superstar pastors who dominate the media, there might be something to it. The gist is that 2% of the pastors will reach more people than the other 98% of pastors. A few years ago I read that 2% of Harvard graduates made more money than all other Harvard graduates combined. I guess that doesn’t include Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg because they’re Harvard dropouts, not graduates.

Last week I was introduced to the “10/90 rule.” If you write or post on social media, this rule might help you. Marvin Olasky articulated it this way: “Writing is 10 percent writing and 90 percent rewriting.” That makes a lot of sense. It’s the way I maintain this blog. It’s not unusual for me to go back and revise something I wrote months or years earlier. I’ve revised some of my posts a dozen times. But that’s not the way blogs usually work.

Blogs, by nature, tend to be extemporaneous. They function as a private journal. That provides freedom of expression, but also lowers the bar for grammar, spelling and readability. If a blog is merely 10% writing and nothing more, 90% of the work is lost. I think the 10/90 rule explains why so many blogs are poorly written.

I’ve learned that the longer I spend on a blog post, the deeper I fall into my own private world, disconnected from the readers. Paragraphs that are crystal clear (and exciting) to me as a writer are gibberish (or boring) to a reader. I read right over my mistakes. To fix that, I must set the project aside and return to it later with fresh eyes. That’s where 90% of the work takes place – rewriting. When you find a book that’s easy to read, it’s not just because the author is brilliant with a pen. It’s also because somebody did 90% of the work rewriting. And rewriting again. And again.

Word processors and desktop computers have made rewriting much easier. I’m old enough to remember when rewriting meant a clean sheet of notebook paper or a new page in the typewriter. I’m glad those days are gone. But one thing seems to have gotten worse: There seem to be more grammatical errors in the newspaper than ever before. Obviously, a writer confronted with a deadline has very little time for rewriting. He or she must depend on an editor for help. Has the convenience of automatic spellcheckers caused editors to relax their proofreading?

End of an Era

My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. (Psalm 31:15-16)

My dad died about two months ago. God graciously gave us a little time with him at the end. Dad was ready for death. When the big day arrived, it marked the end of an era for me. Now I’m part of the “elder” generation. We certainly are not orphans, for God is our loving and present heavenly Father. But we are next in line to walk by sight rather than faith.

With dad’s passing, Carol and I have experienced eight significant deaths in less than five years: Carol’s parents, my parents, my brother Darrell, Carol’s sister Ann, my Uncle Bob and my closest childhood friend Tom. (I blogged about most of them, if anyone cares to look back.) Two losses which have impacted me the hardest are Tom’s death and Dad’s death. Tom’s death hits hard because we were the same age. Dad’s death hits home, I think, because it’s the end of an era. We talked often by phone. I asked his advice as recently as this year. Dad even helped us with the down payment when we bought our house last year. It is indeed the end of an era. My childhood home is being sold. It will no longer be there for us as a holiday destination, a resting place, or even for a simple family visit.

This summer marks the end of an era for me in two other ways, too. First, our nation is bouncing back from COVID-19. The pandemic shaped and dominated my private world and my personal ministry for over a year. It was in the forefront of my planning as a pastor. That season is fading. What comes next will be different. The church will never be the same, even though the immediate risk for our congregation has passed. It’s the end of an era. (Unfortunately, the pandemic is still a threat in many other places, especially in the impoverished third world. So let’s distribute the vaccine as widely as possible!)

Second, I’m recovering from a fall on the ice in the driveway last fall. It has taken a long time for the full injury to manifest, but the effects have impacted my exercise routine. Physical therapy, not the stationery bicycle, has become my priority. I’m trying a balancing act to accomplish as much as possible, but the “easy” season of exercise and weight management has ended. It’s the end of an era for me. As my shoulder improves, perhaps with surgery ahead, I hope it will not turn into the end of my life-style diet and exercise. But these disciplines have struggled recently, especially with two road trips to Ohio.

The triple punch – Dad’s death, the fading pandemic and my stubborn shoulder injury – add up to a special challenge for me. Generally, I can state my personal mission statement and picture personal goals for the church in an instant (although only one person actually asks). Right now, however, I’m not sure about what’s next for the church. Since I’m the pastor, that’s unsettling. I’m in a bit of a leadership fog.

That makes today a really good moment to remember that my times are in God’s hands. His love is unfailing. I hope you can say the same.

Blogging by Trial and Trouble

Recently WordPress updated its publishing software. They have removed (or hidden) the classic editor and forced basic bloggers like me into using a new “block” editor. They claim it’s better and easier to use, but it’s not. For a while I was able to revert to the old editor when I wrote. But in my last post on June 4, 2021, I was forced to use the new editor. The experience was unsatisfactory. I couldn’t find a way to add a title to the post, so it remains “untitled.” This post will be untitled as well. There’s a heading on the page, but not a title in the link. I spent a few hours trying to figure it out. So far, the new and improved block editor still doesn’t make sense. A plugin is available for the classic editor, but I’d have to spend $300 a year to get it. No thanks! My site traffic isn’t high enough to justify the expense. Until I can figure this out, my blog posts may be few or even nonexistent. Why would I keep posting “untitled”? Perhaps WordPress is trying to drive away free bloggers like me. They just might succeed. Maybe “free” has become “freeloading” to them. I understand the company needs to make a profit. That’s only fair. On my site their profit would come through ads, although I don’t notice them. Maybe WordPress can’t find advertisers for small sites like mine. In any case, this may bring my blogging experience to a close. Or maybe I’ll be able to start over with a new host.

Does anyone have thoughts to share?

Mercy vs. Grace

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

Grace and mercy are sisters, but they’re not twins. The contemporary church tends to talk more about grace than about mercy. The historical church addressed mercy more than we do today. Why? I think it was because they were more conscious of divine judgment than we are. So what’s the difference between mercy and grace?

Mercy is withholding due punishment for a wrong. It’s not giving someone the just penalty they deserve. When Derek Chauvin stands before the judge this month for his sentencing in the George Floyd murder conviction, he’ll hope for mercy. The prosecution is asking for 30 years. The defense is seeking time served. One sentence would be considerably more merciful than the other one!

Grace goes further than mercy. If mercy withholds what we deserve, grace bestows what we do not deserve. Mercy is the first mile; grace is the second mile. If the family of George Floyd offers forgiveness to Derek Chauvin (as at least one family member is reported to have done), they will be giving him what he is not due. Grace goes further than mercy. It brings reconciliation.

If anyone is looking for a theological exercise, look up expiation and propitiation. They’re similar terms, but at an irreducible minimum, expiation provides a foundation for God’s mercy and propitiation secures God’s grace.

Mercy can be given without grace, but true grace can­not be given without mercy. That’s why it’s dangerous to overlook mercy. If we skip over mercy, grace becomes cheap. Let’s not slide toward cheap grace. Instead, Jesus taught that we should be full of mercy toward others.

Defeating Death in the Game of Life: Overtime Victory!

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12)

At the end of regulation, the sun sank toward the horizon late on Good Friday. Three mangled bodies hung limply on a trio of crosses outside Jerusalem. Shattered bones protruded from crushed legs of the first and third victims. The second man suffered no broken bones in his sufferings, though a waterish liquid dripped from a fresh spear wound in his side. All three men were dead. There was no longer any doubt about that. Their cooling bodies were removed from the crosses and carried out of sight.

Because local religious leaders filed a protest, game officials decided the Tournament of Life would have to extend into overtime. They posted a guard at the tomb of the second man to ensure that Death would remain victor.

But they were working with an incomplete rule-book. Here are three rules they didn’t understand. To be fair, we struggle to understand the rules of the game of life, too.

1) The game officials on Good Friday understood how life preceded death, but they didn’t understand how death preceded life. They thought death was the end of the game. To the contrary, their own Scriptures taught death as separation of the spirit/soul from the body, not annihilation. When a personal dies, their spirit/soul continues to live. Furthermore, life could could be restored to a dead body. Historical figures as far back as Abraham understood God could raise the dead. The Apostle Paul later wrote to the Ephesian believers that they had been dead in their transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1). But they were no longer dead. They had been made alive in spirit. Scriptures demonstrate both a resurrection of the body and a resurrection of the soul/spirit.

2) The game officials on Good Friday understood that everyone is mortal, but they didn’t understand what happens after death. If death is not the end, something else must come next. “Sheol” is a Hebrew word used to describe the grave in the Old Testament.  “Paradise” is a word with roots in both Hebrew and Greek. It occurs three times in the Old Testament and three times in the New Testament. When I was in graduate school, a professor taught us that paradise was a subset of Sheol (the grave), a place set aside for the righteous who are awaiting resurrection. Modern scholarship isn’t so sure. Some scholars believe it refers to the abode of God, that is, heaven. “Paradise” also appears to refer to a garden. The Septuagint used it to describe the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 & 3. “Paradise” appears in Revelation 2:7, which also is a garden scene.

“Paradise” describes the idyllic world before sin entered (Genesis 2). It describes the redeemed world after sin is eradicated (Revelation 2). It describes the abode of the righteous dead (heaven or the grave). It describes the destiny of the man on the third cross because of the man on the second cross (Luke 23:43). Their bodies were both in the grave, so paradise in this context is a temporary environment, either a cold grave awaiting resurrection or a bright heaven in the presence of God.

3) The game officials on Good Friday understood how the wages of sin is death, illustrated by the sacrificial system, but they didn’t understand how atonement could satisfy God’s righteous judgment of sin (Isaiah 53:11). God’s just satisfaction was demonstrated when he raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. God the Father not only raised Jesus to bodily life, he promises eternal life to those who belong to Jesus. Followers of Jesus die to sin on the third cross, a death which leads to eternal life. Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

Because of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the Apostle Paul declared him the winner of the Tournament of Life: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

He is risen! Death is defeated! Hallelujah!

Happy Easter!