Undeserved mercy, unexpected grace

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:9-12

Yesterday I experienced one of the greatest kindnesses I have ever seen. It was a gift of mercy multiplied by grace.

Recently Carol and I had some new flooring installed in our home, a hard floor in the little breakfast nook and carpet in the den and stairway. Yesterday I walked down to the furniture store to pay the bill. Privately I was a little anxious because we’d already spent my annual housing allowance on other repairs and renovations. To be flat-out honest, I was suffering a bit of a private pity party. I know, I know. I shouldn’t engage in that kind of self-indulgent sulking. God has been so good to us. He is always faithful and worthy of our continuous trust. I ought not worry about such little things as paying bills. But I worry far too often, even when the Lord has provided the means to pay.

Most of my private pity parties are celebrated when I play the comparison game. When I compare myself to other people in general or other pastors in particular, it invariably drains my spiritual vitality. Pity parties invariably expose myopic vision. Whether I look good or look bad in the comparison, my eyes stray from Christ and turn inward to self. I carry a burden that isn’t mine to bear. Temporal responsibilities outweigh spiritual reality. That was my spiritual condition yesterday as I pulled out my checkbook. It wasn’t a picture of personal piety.

The clerk laid the bill facing her on the counter between us. I took a pen in my hand and waited for an amount to write on the check. Without any drama or fanfare, without raising her voice or changing her business-like tone, she announced that the bill had been paid in full.

“What?… Who?…” I stammered.

She wouldn’t tell me anything. No names. No places. No explanation. Just that the bill had been paid.

I was shocked. It was an undeserved mercy. I ought to have paid the amount due. Instead the debt I owed was removed. Someone else paid the full price.

But the clerk wasn’t finished. There was more. She wanted me to measure our kitchen floor. Whoever paid my debt also was going to provide a new kitchen floor at no charge. There were no conditions, no “ifs.” There was not a single “but.” It was a gift with no strings attached. I came to the clerk thinking she wanted something from me. Instead she had something for me.

I was speechless. Paying the bill I owed was an undeserved mercy, but adding a kitchen floor was an outrageous and unexpected grace. The prophet Isaiah would label this person a “Repairer of Broken Walls” and a “Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).

Mercy is withholding punishment due. That’s the first mile. Exhibit #1 is Jesus’ atonement on the cross. He paid the debt we owe. He took the punishment for our sin so it didn’t fall on us. Grace is unmerited favor. It goes further than mercy. That’s the second mile. There are not conditions. There are no “ifs.” Not a single “but.” Exhibit #1 is God’s manifold blessings to us in Christ – election, justification, adoption, sealing, calling – to name a few. All provided with no strings attached. We approach God thinking he wants something from us. Instead he has something for us.

In Jesus I’ve experienced both mercy and grace. Exhibit #1 is a hallmark of my life.

This week I was privileged to experience Exhibit #2 of mercy and grace. Mercy paid the bill I incurred. Grace piled on blessings I neither sought nor expected. We were replacing a floor in my house, but God made someone a Restorer of Broken Walls in my heart. We were updating a little house on a highway, but God made an anonymous benefactor a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Don’t feel left out. You can approach a heavenly Father and find undeserved mercy and unexpected grace. That’s what Jesus has for us. No strings attached. Some­times Jesus’ people do it, too. It can make a big difference. I know because it happened to me this week. Now that I have received the blessing of undeserved mercy and unexpected grace, I get to pass it on to others. So can you.

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A Breath of Mercy

My brother Darrell, 56, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He has only a few days to live at most now, perhaps less. We may get to South Carolina in time to see him before he dies. Or we may not arrive in time. When he passes, the immediate cause of death will be complications from a series of strokes.

Today God breathed a moment of mercy. Darrell regained enough awareness and lucidity to address end of life issues. Someone contacted a lawyer and he was able to sign a will. Although speech is impaired, he was able to communicate by phone with our parents, who still live in the same house in Ohio where my siblings and I all grew up. Most important, he met with a chaplain. Although I don’t know the details of their conversation, that is a very positive sign. The south is, after all, the Bible belt.

I am reminded of the incident recorded in Numbers 21 when the children of Israel grumbled against the Lord in the wilderness. God sent venomous snakes among the people. The bites of the serpents were lethal. When the people repented of their sin, God didn’t remove the snakes. Instead he instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten had only to look at the pole and he would live.

Jesus referred to this event when he was speaking to Nicodemus in John 3. He identified the pole as a type or a symbol of his coming cross. He himself became sin for us, which is pictured by the serpent on the pole. Like the serpent in the desert, the Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross. Those who look at him will live. It is the look of faith.

Salvation is not achieved by a lifetime of good works. In this word picture given by Jesus to the educated rabbi, salvation results from a mere look at the cross. Maybe it’s just a glance, but the cross arrests our attention. It turns our glance into a gaze. We can look at the cross with full confidence in our salvation. We can do nothing because Christ has done everything. We can receive deliverance only by faith. It is God’s love poured out for us.

If God had removed the snakes from among the people, the people still would have died. They already were bitten. They were guilty of sin. By leaving the snakes in their midst–the consequences of their grumbling, God graciously pointed them to the only deliverance from their condition.

We are in the same condition today. We are guilty of sin. We have been bitten by snakes. Have you looked at the cross? Will you gaze at the cross today? it is your only deliverance from sin.

The Clevenger Chronicles: Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow at the Grand Canyon

In late September, Carol and I toured three days at Grand Canyon National Park. We hiked down the beautiful Bright Angel Trail for a mile and a half into the canyon. Shortly after we turned around, a downpour soaked our path. It quickly moved out over the canyon and a bright sun emerged.

A brilliant rainbow formed beneath us in the canyon. It was breathtaking. We were over the rainbow! What Dorothy Gale only dreamed and sang about became a reality for us. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience. At first we were too stunned to think of taking our picture. Fortunately, another hiker offered to snap a photo. What a treat from our heavenly Father! Midday rainbows are impossible except in unique places like the Grand Canyon.

If you look at the picture above, you might miss that we’re actually over the rainbow because the camera is positioned above us and the vast expanse behind us looks like the sky. But it’s not the sky. It’s the canyon below. The rainbow stretches in front of the rocks in the picture—the canyon floor. Isn’t that an amazing sign of a divine covenant?

From the Grand Canyon we headed north to Yellowstone National Park. We drove through a hard downpour and arrived at Old Faithful just as the rain stopped. As we stood at the famous site, a rainbow hovered in the east over Old Faithful Lodge. What a beautiful sight! A few minutes later, the reliable geyser erupted right on schedule.

Two national parks. Two rainbows. One trip of a lifetime. One would almost think God is trying to tell us something. Actually, he is. Rainbows are the sign of a covenant God made with Noah. We are the beneficiaries of his unconditional promise never to destroy the earth again by water in judgment.

Rainbows are far more than a refraction of light caused by moisture in the atmosphere. They’re a reminder that God restrains judgment on us. The colors draw our attention back to a covenant relationship we enjoy with our loving, heavenly Father. Rainbows shout out a universal covenant. They illustrate God withholding his hand of judgment in mercy. We all need God’s mercy. Whenever we see a rainbow, we remember God’s mercy toward us.

But we need more than God’s mercy. We need his grace, too. Mercy only withholds the judgment we deserve. Grace bestows unmerited favor upon us. Grace is consummated in the incarnation, when Jesus came to earth. That leads us to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah Jesus. The Savior brings us grace which extends far over the rainbow of mercy. He is full of grace and truth, fulfilling our deepest need. The rainbow is just the beginning. We also need the manger and the cross, all wrapped together in resurrection.

It’s a joy to hear from many of you during this time of year as we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus. May each of you have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  Genesis 9:12-16

Overflowing Thanksgiving in a Blizzard

As I write this on a Friday morning in Clarkfield, Minnesota, the wind is howling and the first snow of the season is flying. The accumulation is amazing. It’s a genuine blizzard on November 18, complete with a school snow day. The kids are cheering, but not their teachers, who have long term vision and understand the definition of “make up day.” Even a funeral scheduled this morning at another local church has been postponed.

In earlier generations, such a storm would have taken us by surprise. Farmers would have been surprised in the fields. Travelers would have been trapped on the roads. Productivity would have been halted. There would have been loss of livestock and possibly loss of human life. But vastly improved weather forecasting has turned this dangerous storm into a minor inconvenience, at least for those who heeded the warnings and have stayed indoors.

For some that will mean working in the barn instead of the field. For others, it will mean braving the meteorological elements and finding a way to their necessary work. For a few, it will mean the first popcorn and movie night of the season, the first installment of what will eventually turn into a raging cabin fever. But not quite yet.

It’s a good day to be thankful.

All of this raises a good question: Where does thanksgiving come from? Amazingly, it doesn’t come from abundance. The human response to abundance is happiness and satisfaction, often followed by a subtle desire for more. Local farmers will face a stiff test next year when they are tempted to compare the 2017 harvest with the 2016 harvest – and then grumble. Last year I said the same thing after the record harvest in our area, only to be surprised by another year of even greater yields.

Yes, God has blessed us greatly in 2016. Our challenge is to turn these blessings from heaven into overflowing gratitude from our hearts. This is complicated by a sure knowledge that such material blessings both come and go. There are good years and there are bad years… all of which are to result in thanksgiving.

How is that even possible? The starting place for gratitude isn’t bounty; it’s blessing. It’s not good grain; it’s a good God. It’s not preparing for a blizzard; it’s having a refuge when we’re unprepared for the blizzards of life. In a word, it’s grace. For all our lip service to grace, this is a hard lesson to learn. But I’ll try anyway.

Here are two statements to soften my heart: Abundance breeds complacency. Complacency breeds entitlement.

Entitlement kills thanksgiving. If we think we deserve bounty, it’s impossible to be thankful for it because thanksgiving comes from grace, which by definition is a blessing we don’t deserve. We must guard against complacency. Yesterday I guarded against complacency by raking wind-blown leaves, mowing the church lawn and searching out the snow blower. Blizzards come whether we’re ready or not. But we’re not entitled to a refuge from them.

Today is a good day to be thankful, not because I prepared yesterday, but because God’s grace has provided a refuge from the storm. To God be the glory, great things he has done.

Jacob Wetterling – Depravity & Grace

Minnesota made national news this week when a criminal confessed in open court to the heinous kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling almost 27 years ago. This has been a high profile case for decades, spurred by the activism of Jacob’s family, relentless investigation, and a trademark photo of the smiling, innocent boy who was missing. Finally, the case has been solved.

The murder confession included gruesome details which were previously unknown. It was the full depth of human depravity unveiled in public display. One of our elders told me he was shaken to the core. Another elder said he couldn’t even read the details because they was so horrific. To be honest, I haven’t read them, either. I don’t want to. (In the same vein, I’ve never watched The Passion of the Christ movie.)

Media reaction has been swift, clear, and vengeful. News accounts speculate what punishment the murderer might be facing. Reporters lament unfortunate limitations in the legal system. There is justified sympathy and support for the Wetterling family. What’s not in the news (or even in private conversation) is compassion for the perpetrator. Maybe it’s too soon, but redemption is not even a minor theme in this sad story.

I wish it were different. If God cannot extend all-sufficient grace to the murderer of Jacob Wetterling, then the gospel offers no hope for the rest of us. If Christians don’t respond with grace in this instance, we don’t have a life-changing message for anyone else, either. We might as well close the church doors and go home.

Why? Because we all are Danny Heinrich. We all are depraved. We all are capable of the worst deeds imaginable. We all are guilty of sin deserving of death. We all need God’s grace.

The Apostle Paul referred to our depravity in graphic terms: As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless:  there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12)

The disease and the remedy are connected: all-inclusive depravity requires all-sufficient grace. The common word is all. The reason this evil shakes us to our core, the reason we turn our heads away from the gory details, is that this display of depravity exposes us all. We are not excluded from Danny Heinrich’s depravity. Danny Heinrich is not excluded from our grace. If Heinrich is denied grace, so are we.

Very few people seem interested in grace these days. Ironically, one of the easiest places to spot this is in sports. Recently sporting news has focused on scandals from the Rio Olympics. It seems like editorial after editorial has condemned the athletes and applauded harsh sanctions. No grace.

In the past year a local editor has castigated football star Adrian Peterson for his conviction of child abuse. The writer (who has the same last name) struggles to root for Peterson on the football field, even though football has nothing to do with child abuse. He can’t let go of the past. No grace.

If grace is not to be found in culture, there is one place where it must flourish: the church. Grace is our role in society. To paraphrase a GEICO commercial, “It’s what we do.”

After all is said and done, one thing will be necessary for the Wetterling family to find closure. They will have to extend grace to Danny Heinrich. The fruit of grace is forgiveness. I suspect the Wetterlings will extend grace. Perhaps Danny Heinrich will receive forgiveness. If and when that happens, such all-sufficient grace will come from God. Wouldn’t it be an amazing display of God’s all-sufficient grace if the murderer, the victim, and the bereaved family are all united in heaven in a joyful reunion around the throne of God?

It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. Before the Apostle Paul became the greatest missionary who ever lived, he was a serial murderer. He committed heinous crimes, similar to what Islamic State is doing today. But Paul’s public display of depravity was answered by God’s all-sufficient grace. No wonder he wrote so eloquently of grace!