Our Problem with Grace

Shaun White won gold in a thrilling halfpipe finale at the Winter Olympics Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, however, his dramatic feel-good victory was tainted by news reports of sexual harassment in his recent past. Some writers were blistering in their condemnation both of Shaun White and of NBC’s neglect to highlight the sexual harassment in their television coverage of White’s Olympic quest.

It seems like half the sports stories these days are more about personal misbehavior than sporting events themselves. It’s not just athletes who are in trouble. Announcers are not immune. Misdirected humor or careless slips of the tongue into a microphone have come back to bite them big in the backside. In some cases it has cost sports commentators their jobs.

The pendulum in society is swinging hard from silence to retribution regarding both personal and professional faults. Many people feel as if they are increasingly balancing their lives along the edge of a knife.

If you are in need of grace, I’ve found some and want to share it with you. Yesterday I happened to land on a powerful blog post, Our Problem with Grace, by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Spencer, who died in 2010, was a champion of grace.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve thought a lot about grace as I’ve gotten older and lived the Christian life longer. I see and hear young, fired up, Pentecostal preacher boys, full of sermons about what will happen if we will pray more, live holy lives, get extreme, go the distance and all that fizz. It doesn’t get to me anymore. I am slowly living past the point of being affected by all the rah-rah Christianity around me.

I know I am not very obedient. I know my sinful patterns and my perennial laziness. I know where I fall short. I am well acquainted with my lusts, my pettiness and my stupid pride. I may make more progress on these things, but honestly, I doubt it. My efforts at obedience have about run their course. Most of what I am going to be as a human being living as a Christian on this planet, I’ve probably already achieved. I want all the years God has for me, and I want to honor and glorify him, but if I am going to learn about grace, now is the time. I need it now.

Spencer’s blog entry is old, but the message is refreshing and timely. We can soak in grace rather than sour in retribution. You can find the entire post at the link below:






Me Too

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Yesterday I wrote about the Andy Savage story and my sympathy toward him in an awkward situation. Today I will address my sympathy toward his accuser and many others who have been in similar circumstances.

First, my bias: I’ve never been abused. My childhood was happy, sheltered and carefree. If you press me, I might concede that my dad was a little stoic and my mom was a little dominant. They weren’t perfect. But they did the best they could. Actually, they did very well. As President Trump would say, “They’re good people.”

As a result, I can say with King David, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:6)

I carry neither the baggage nor the insight of those who have been abused. For most of my life, abuse hasn’t been on my radar.  Sexual abuse was always a story about something unimaginable happening somewhere else to other people. I’ve never had to deal with it firsthand in my pastoral ministry. I wonder how much I missed that was right under my nose.

It’s not profound, but here’s the short version of my response to those who allege abuse against Andy Savage: I believe the pain is real. Abuse has been suppressed far too long in society and in the church. Finally their stories are being heard. That’s a good thing. It’s also a hard thing. Some of the stories are horrific and we have too often the church has been complicit in the cover-up by our passive silence. Those who have been abused deserve our greatest care and our deepest love.

Abuse paints a horrific picture. It’s stunning. In the past few days, Larry Nassar has become a poster child of the problem. It may be just a tip of the iceberg. It’s helpful that abuses long hidden are finally coming to light. Here is an opportunity for the church to help hurting people heal.

The gospel is a message of redemption and forgiveness. The church is a body where abusers and victims can find mutual resolution. The common denominator is that we all are sinners and we all are victims of sin. At the cross God placed our sin on Christ – all of it – and bestowed on us Christ’s righteous – all of it. God is the ultimate victim of our sin. In Christ he forgave us completely and reconciled us to himself. His vengeance for our sin was poured out on Christ. This is called substitutionary atonement. But God didn’t stop there. He adopted us as his children. We are in a family relationship with God.

Recently media outlets reported how 156 women testified at the sentencing of Larry Nassar. The disgraced doctor sexually abused young athletes for decades without being stopped by those who may have known (or should have known) about it. I don’t know how much his punishment will contribute toward the healing of the victims. At a minimum, they have certain knowledge that he will never do it again to another young woman. Some of the victims stated that they had forgiven Nassar for what he did to them. Other victims did not.

At one point a father of three victims tried to attack Nassar and had to be restrained. Ironically, the angry father now may face criminal charges himself. God claims the right of vengeance and has delegated it to the state. Taking personal vengeance does not bring healing.

Those who forgive Larry Nassar will heal the most. After our sins have been forgiven, Jesus taught that we must forgive others. Receiving grace from God is linked to giving grace to others. That’s the power of the gospel. It’s not easy. It’s not automatic. There’s a long and difficult process in forgiving others for their abuse. But it’s essential to healing.

I don’t know if Andy Savage’s accuser is a follower of Jesus. The media sound bites are mostly about accusations and anger and don’t mention her faith. The best thing the church can do for Andy Savage’s accuser is help her bring this pain to Jesus. That may sound counter-intuitive and simplistic to unbelievers. After all, she is the victim and the cross is for offenders only. But it’s the only way. The anger of man will never give birth to the justice of God. I’ve seen a few angry people in my pastoral ministry. For the most part, their anger has served only to distort the truth and drive a wedge in the body of Christ.  For Andy Savage and his accuser, the facts of the case need to come out for the good of both parties.

I suspect awareness in the church will help more than I yet realize as more and more abuse is exposed to the light. But when the search for healing has boiled down to essentials, we all will arrive together at the foot of a cross. Substitutionary atonement and adoption are the only reliable grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s what the church is all about for abusers and victims alike. That’s where healing will be found.

Ex Post Facto

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:12-16)

Last month Ed Stetzer wrote a laser-sharp article about abuse in the church which is well worth reading (http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2018/january/andy-savages-standing-ovation-was-heard-round-world-because.html). Stetzer reflects on a clandestine event which took place between a youth pastor and a teenager two decades ago which then resurfaced a few weeks ago. The result has been a whirlwind of controversy.

When the Andy Savage story first broke, my gut reaction was sympathy toward a man who is being dragged through the mud today for a 20 year old offense, although he had confessed and repented long ago. I probably would have been one of the people standing and applauding. Ed Stetzer is helping me rethink this.

Stetzer’s main idea is that we should protect victims in the church, not abusers. Absolutely! Right on! Yet something inside me resisted. I felt sympathy for Andy Savage (and still do). The first time I read Stetzer’s article several days ago, something seemed to be missing. A thought niggled at my subconscious mind but didn’t break through. Today it finally did.

This is what’s hard for me:

When I was entering pastoral ministry in 1985, we talked very little about abuse in the church. It was rarely mentioned in seminary. I was naive enough to think abuse was much rarer than it actually is. Generally, we were taught (if we were taught at all) that the best response to scandalous sin was to work through forgiveness and redemption by all parties. We were told not to report such matters to the police unless the situation couldn’t be worked out privately. From time to time a scandal would appear in the news. Often the offender was given a chance to work through life issues and to be restored to fellowship, if not a church office. We would hear spiritual leaders make statements about second chances and reconciliation. I never heard anyone rebut this approach as protecting the institution at the expense of the victims. Very little was said about victims at all.

Back then the cultural climate was very different than it is today. I don’t remember anyone at the time who would have labeled a consensual sexual encounter between a 22 year-old college student/youth pastor and a 17 year old girl as abuse. We would have called it “premarital sex” and counseled the parties toward healing and reconciliation. Church discipline may have been initiated. There was little or no regard for the fact that one party was a youth leader and thus an authority figure. Today such a consensual sexual encounter is considered coercion with a perpetrator and a victim. Twenty years ago when President Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was impeached for lying about it, not for the indiscretion itself. Standards have changed.

This is illustrated in the Savage case by the fact that there was no state law prohibiting such sexual encounters when the encounter occurred.* According to news reports, the district attorney said there is unfortunately no case to prosecute today because the applicable law didn’t exist back then. That reflects a very important part of our constitution known as ex post facto. Our nation’s founders recognized that it’s inherently unjust to create laws to fit a crime after it has occurred. In the present controversy, what is a crime now wasn’t a crime 20 years ago. That doesn’t make what happened 20 years ago between a 22 year-old youth pastor and a 17 year old teenager right, but it does make it unprosecutable.

Some people have criticized the way church leaders handled the Savage situation at the time. Exactly what did happen is in sharp dispute. The accuser and the accused are framing what happened and the aftermath very differently.

This is not an isolated case. Accusing authority figures ex post facto is a cultural tidal wave. Several years ago an abuse scandal rocked Penn State University which ultimately brought down legendary coach Joe Paterno. I’m not excusing what took place in the locker room by any means or the coach’s inaction which allowed the abuse to continue. Abuse must be stopped at all cost. At the same time, Coach Paterno’s reputation was destroyed for leadership decisions made decades earlier in a very different legal and cultural climate. That’s ex post facto. Such judgments are unjust. Child abuse is much, much worse than ex post facto. But two wrongs still don’t make a right.

The same kind of ex post facto condemnations are bringing down celebrity figures, politicians and church leaders all over the country. Many of them are falling because of indiscretions which occurred years ago, but are now judged by a very different standard. Minnesota celebrities have not been spared. Just ask Garrison Keillor or Al Franken. The tolerance of the 1980s has become the intolerance of the 2010s.

The Apostle Paul addressed ex post facto in Romans 2:12-16. He didn’t excuse or justify any sin which someone commits before they received God’s law. Nor did the apostle judge them by the law which they received later (ex post facto). Instead, Paul identified a code of conscience as the criteria for God’s justice. If there is no law, conscience becomes our guide.

When we are in a crisis and we don’t know what to do — when the code of law has not yet been given, I think God will judge us by how well we follow our conscience. That’s not a free pass. We won’t get away with anything. I have an exceptionally sensitive conscience. There’s easily enough in my conscience apart from God’s law to condemn me to hell for eternity.  Probably there’s enough in your conscience to condemn you, too. We are wrong to apply the law (civil or divine) to those who don’t have it, whether we use it against ourselves or someone else. Yet it happens a lot in today’s world.

Bottom line: God doesn’t judge anyone ex post facto. That would violate his perfect justice. Therefore, we shouldn’t judge anyone ex post facto, either.

*Update: Later news articles report that Savage’s actions actually were illegal in Texas at the time, but he cannot be prosecuted because the statutes of limitations has expired. Savage himself describes the events differently, stating that he believes what he did was immoral, but not illegal. Almost two months later, the two sides continue to frame the events very differently. If Savage in fact did break the law, it’s not a case of ex post facto after all. Whether he broke the law remains in dispute.



Mass Production: Family Gains

In 2017 we added two new grandchildren in the same year for the first time. We now have six grandchildren.

Our youngest son Josh and his wife Dani had a son Levi in September during Hurricane Irma. He was born six weeks early and they had to send him home a little early because the hospital in Columbus, Georgia, was receiving babies from the hurricane zone. The eye of the storm passed directly over their city the day Levi came home, but it was only a tropical depression by that point. Ironically, they were housing guests from the coast who had evacuated for the hurricane. But the Irma changed course and turned west instead. Levi’s first night home also happened to be Josh’s first night in his new home, as he was in the process of transferring from Hawaii. The result was a cacophony of tired adults, scared children, many pets of various kinds, and a  remnant of Hurricane Irma. Too bad Levi won’t remember any of it. It’s a great homecoming story.

Levi had a little trouble eating at first, but he’s become a chow hound and is doing very well. Josh has been reassigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. He was still stationed in Hawaii when they wanted to induce Dani’s labor in Georgia, but fortunately Josh was able to fly there in time for Levi’s grand entrance. Levi is their first child.

Our middle son Joel and his wife Cara also had their first child, James, this year. James was born last month in Minnesota while Carol and I were in Georgia seeing Levi for the first time. (Mass production can create real drama!) We got to meet baby James on our way home from meeting baby Levi in Georgia.

James is doing well. It looks like Cara will step away from her job at the bank to care for him at home in Watertown, Minnesota, at least for awhile. Joel began a new job at a bank closer to home earlier this year.

Our oldest son Nathan and his wife Francine’s four children finally have cousins. Jonathan is in the fourth grade. Justin is in second grade, Francesca is in kindergarten, and Evangeline is about to enter the “terrific twos.” They all live in Shakopee, Minnesota, where Nathan still works in a computer business and Francine works as a full-time chauffeur for four kids.

At the home front, we are now into our seventh year of pastoral ministry at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota. One highlight for the church this year is the growth of the after-school Good News Club at the local charter school. New Life launched this community outreach in November 2016. It has been very well received.

In January 2018 the church will send a small work team to south Texas to help rebuild after Hurricane Harvey last summer. I will be a part of this group, along with three other men, working under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse.

I was recruited to teach general music classes at the local charter school when the music teacher suddenly resigned last January. It was supposed to be a temporary position, but when no other candidate stepped forward during the summer, I kept going this fall. It’s officially just a half day per week, but the need is much bigger than that and I spend a lot of time at school.

Carol’s garden was smaller this year, but she still managed to try some new things. She makes and distributes water kefir most Sundays at church. Carol also works occasionally as a substitute aide at the charter school.

It’s good to hear from many of you during the holidays. Thanks for sharing your cards and letters! May you all have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year in 2018.


Reduction: Family losses

This past year brought some painful challenges to our family. My brother Darrell died in May at the age of 56 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He battled this deadly disease almost 14 years, longer than anyone else we’ve found.

Darrell once told me about going to a large conference for cancer survivors. They divided participants into groups based on their types of cancer. When it came to pancreatic cancer, he was the only attendee. There were no other survivors of pancreatic cancer there. A doctor once pronounced him clean. But it was a false hope.

Carol and I went to South Carolina to visit Darrell in his hospice bed at the very end. It was a precious time together, though he was mostly unresponsive.

Darrell died just days before his younger daughter Beth was graduated from high school. His older daughter Jenny is a graduate of Clemson and currently decorates cakes in a bakery. Darrell’s wife Anne is a librarian. Anne reports they’re all doing well.

My last uncle, Bob Rockey, passed away at the age of 88 in September. He had been closer to us than my other uncles, perhaps because of his congenial personality and his rock solid faith. Bob’s wife Joan is strong and doing well in her grief.

These family losses stirred my heart and yielded several blog entries in 2017.


Christmas in the book of Isaiah

People have always had an vested interest in the future. A prudent farmer cares about the weather forecast more than he cares about current conditions. He has already prepared for today. His work today is about tomorrow.

A good stock broker scrutinizes market forecasts even more than a farmer anticipates weather. He earns the trust of investors by telling them what may happen in the future. Their lives and his livelihood depend on the accuracy of his projections.

The life insurance industry is built on the risk of possible future events. Agents depend on actuarial tables—a prediction of the future— to sell policies.

Futurists work with uncertain knowledge. They examine statistics of the past and patterns of the present to predict the future. High confidence does not come with a guarantee. They may be right about the future or they may be wrong.

Prophets don’t have that luxury. They deal with certainty, not projections. A true prophet is 100% right 100% of the time. And he places his life on the line by making a prophecy. That’s what lifts Isaiah to such high status as a prophet of God.

In The Bible Knowledge Commentary, John Martin listed 22 messianic prophecies in the book of Isaiah. Some of them are about Jesus’ first advent in Bethlehem. Others refer to Christ’s second coming to reign over the earth with power.

We can find the Christmas story in the book of Isaiah with startling clarity. Here’s one prophecy:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.   (Isaiah 7:14)

Isaiah was speaking about both the near future and the distant future. A young woman would bear a son as a sign of God’s temporal deliverance in the time of Ahaz, King of Judah. Much later a virgin would give birth to a Son as a sign of God’s ultimate deliverance. It’s Christmas in the book of Isaiah.

The sign to Ahaz was fulfilled less than three years later when his two enemies were deposed in 732 B.C. When that happened, Ahaz knew Isaiah had foretold it. Yet God intended more in Isaiah’s words than merely the deliverance of Ahaz. The prophecy also foretold the virgin birth of Jesus.

Matthew 1:22-23 verifies the fulfillment of this prophecy in the birth of Jesus:

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”).

Here’s more of the Christmas story in another prophecy by Isaiah:

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)

This passage foretold the birth of Jesus 700 years before it happened. It’s Christmas in Isaiah. It tells us all we need to know about the future. God wins!


Where was God?

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4)

Last Sunday as New Life Church (newlifecma.com) was gathered for worship here in Clarkfield, Minnesota, an intruder infiltrated a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and gunned down 26 unsuspecting people, more than half the congrega­tion. Many of them were children. In the aftermath of horror, this has been a week of shock and mourning for Christians around the country.

On Tuesday morning someone from our church asked me the inevitable question, “Where was God?” Those three short words unleash a gusher of highly charged queries. How could God allow something like this to happen? Why didn’t he protect his people, especially the innocent children? Is it unjust for a good God to allow such suffering?

Ironically, the very moment the tragedy was unfolding 1,200 miles away in Texas, we were studying a similar horror in Acts 12:1-4 in which early Christians were persecuted and James the Apostle was beheaded by King Herod. The Bible reports this terrible event and several other such evils without commentary. There isn’t even a record about how the survivors mourned their devastating loss.

Both Scripture and experience teach us that we live in a broken world. From the time the curse entered God’s creation in Genesis 3 until the time the curse is lifted in Revelation 22, we live in a society frustrated by futility. Things go wrong—very wrong—and we simply don’t have very satisfying answers. The bereaved pastor in Sutherland Springs put it this way, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”

Moreover, we can’t fix the problem of evil. We can’t bring back the victims. We can’t recall the bullets. The fact that this mass shooting took place in a church rather than a gay nightclub means nothing. Followers of Jesus, even the most obedient of Christians, aren’t exempt from the pain and loss of our fallen planet. Some­times the good die young. Sometimes the wicked live into old age. Life under the sun isn’t fair, at least by our standards.

Actually, people ask “Where was God?” all the time. We asked it after the Twin Towers fell on 9-11. We asked it after an F5 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Someone even made a documentary movie about that tornado with the title, “Where was God?” We’ve asked this hard question several times in recent weeks – after hurri­canes, wildfires, earthquakes and shootings. Where was God? Why didn’t he intervene? Does he care? Is he even there? For followers of Jesus, a church shooting may seem like the worst evil of all. But it’s really no worse than the other catastrophes. A nightclub shooting might even be the worst catastrophe, especially if we consider that many victims there weren’t prepared for eternity.

The friend who asked me “Where was God?” during the shooting also tested an answer with me. He said God was on his throne – and he is right. God still rules the world. Therein lies our hope. We can see God on his throne in the story about the rescue of Peter from prison, which is recorded immediately after the beheading of James. We can even laugh at the humor in it. (I’ll write about that in another post.) God doesn’t always deliver us from evil, but if we suffer in his sovereign will, he will deliver us through it.

The broken world is not out of control. Evil is not all-powerful or unrestrained, even though it may seem like to us. We are not victims of unbridled evil. If the events of last Sunday have you doubting God’s goodness or power, consider the rescue of Peter (Acts 12:5-19) or glance ahead to the following story in Acts 12:19-25. There we can see how God punished wicked King Herod after he killed James.

God is still on his throne. We can respond with joy and hope.