GOD STORIES #1 ~ 8/26/10

I'm going to start a blog series where, every once in a while, I post what I'm simply going to call "God Stories." These aren't necessarily flashy stories, or funny stories, or healed from cancer stories, but they're God stories all the same. Because any time God intervenes in even the smallest way, to take our lives of desperate dependance and lift them even one step higher, closer or deeper into the fellowship of faith with Him, it's a story worth telling.

Vladic shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked back at me. “I just don’t want to do it,” he said with a grimace and a shrug.

‘It’ was playing an important musical role in an upcoming ministry opportunity for our small community. Led by a few charismatic personalities with big dreams and godly hearts, the outreach event in question was scheduled to take place in a trailer park meadow and aimed at sharing the love of Jesus with whoever would come. Fliers were passed out, plastered or pegged onto message boards and park trees. An article appeared in the paper. People talked. Before long, the word was out: ‘gospel gathering at the meadow!’ On the agenda for the home-grown revival meeting was preaching, prayer, an alter call, baptism, and—music.

Music was where Vladic fit in. He‘d been asked by the organizers of the small outreach to add his own personal flair to the sound other musicians planned to contribute in leading worship songs for what they all hoped would be a large turnout. Inspired by the vision and honored to be asked, Vladic jumped into the deep end of the planning. Soon, however, as practices turned into jam sessions and the styles of younger band members clashed with his own, Vladic’s idealistic vision faltered. He was all for a revival meeting; he just wanted the musical part, the part his name was associated with, to be successful and excellent. Sensing it might turn into something less, he was ready to bail. It was at this point that our conversation took place—
ME: (oblivious) “How are things coming for the outreach event?”
VLADIC: (listlessly) “I dunno.”
ME: (confused) “What do you mean, ‘you don’t know?’ Aren’t you part of the band?”
VLADIC: (glumly) “I just don’t want to do it.”

I’ve observed many good musicians and have come to classify them into two camps. There are those who, on the one hand, know they’re good but seem to feel a constant need to prove it to you. And then there are those who know they’re good but wear their talent modestly, like a pair of old leather shoes. When the time comes to dance, they’re prepared, and they do it comfortably, deftly. The rest of the time they’re just casually stylish. In my opinion, Vladic fell into the latter camp. The only problem with always being musically stylish is that, when you’re collaborating with other musicians, collective style cannot be guaranteed. This can bother the consummate perfectionist.

“It’s not that I’m a perfectionsist.” Vladic continued defensively—“I just like things to be done right.” I squinted an eye at him and said nothing. He sighed heavily at this and looked away. Finally, with a tone betraying preemptive regret, he broke the telling silence.
“Okay, okay,” he muttered, “what is it you’re wanting to say?”
Given the open door to ‘do my pastor thing,’ I asked him what the point of the gathering was; to offer the community a professional concert, or to offer them the good news of Christ? ‘Christ,’ he acknowledged. ‘Our perfectionism,’ I continued, ‘which can be the fingerprint of pride, is sometimes best combated by purposely allowing for imperfection. Invite people over to dinner without white-glove cleaning your house first.  Join in that pick-up game of the sport you’re not the best at. Play your heart out at a public musical event even though the results may not be fitting for a recording studio. Acknowledge that you’re not perfect, or that the situation won’t be perfect, and then predetermine to accept it. Accept that the sky won’t fall if someone is out of tune. Accept that your value isn’t defined by your performance. Accept that God can still do great things and be glorified, not in spite of flawed people, but because of flawed people who are depending on Him.  Allow for imperfection. Then grace it.’
Vladic looked at me doubtfully when I was done. “I’m going to go home and take a nap now,” he said. “And then I’m going to think about what you just said.” Then he left.

I didn’t see Vladic again until after the scheduled event. “Well,” I said, cornering him one day, “what happened?”
“I tried to get out of it.” He said. So much for my inspirational speech. Then I realized what he’d said—“tried?” I asked.
“Well, initially I agreed with what you said and told God I would go," he continued. "Then, when I woke up the next day with an extremely sore back, I decided it was the perfect last-ditch excuse. So I called the lead organizer to let him know I wouldn’t be joining them.” This didn’t sound promising, but I could see Vladic wasn’t finished.
“15 minutes later there was a knock at my door,” he continued. “I hobbled over to answer it and discovered that same event organizer standing on the front porch!”
“What did he want?” I asked with curiosity. I was edging forward in my seat. 
“He said he wanted to pray for my back!”
“And...?” I found myself almost standing.
“Well, Vladic confided… “I guess you could say God called my bluff— because this man prayed and suddenly my back just felt so much better! And I had no more excuses left. So… I did it. I went and played.”
“Wow,” I said with genuine amazement, falling back heavily into my chair. God was just so cool. But there was one more thing I had to know—“Are you glad you played?”
At this, Vladic also leaned back and crossed his arms, getting a faraway, mystical look in his eyes. He’s quite the showman.
“A lot more people came than I expected,” he started slowly. “They sang along. They listened to the preacher. Someone got baptized.” He paused for a moment before going on. “The whole thing was loud,” he continued, gaining momentum. “It was loud, It was off-key, and it wasn’t perfect… but—“ and he paused again for effect, smiling as he made eye-contact with me, a look of satisfaction on his face—“but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I left that conversation wondering how many priceless experiences I’ve forfeited for the sake of perfectionism over the years? How many times has God given me the chance to experience His power, amplified by grace, and I’ve told Him I preferred to do things my way or not at all? Are you willing to let God use you, even if it means you don’t get any of the kudos for what He ends up doing? Be careful how you answer; God might just call your bluff.

Surrounded By Grace,

OUR DEBTS & OUR DEBTORS ~ Last Sunday's Sermon

As we continue to work our way line by line through the Lord's Prayer, we come to this line- "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors..." What does that mean? How does forgiveness work? Is there a limit to how much one person can receive? How does the way I treat those who've sinned against me affect my own position before God? Take a few minutes, listen, and find some answers.

Confidence in Prayer: Our Debts from Neighborhood Church of Redding on Vimeo.


“You’re going to be smokin’ hot in that outfit,” said the sharp and matter-of-fact 7 year-old we’ll just call ‘Johnny.’ “It’s going to be like, over 100 degrees.”
I struggled to stifle an amused laugh, afraid to break the magical spell of boyhood playing out in front of me. Something about it was just so… perfect. This morning I was privileged to witness the forging of friendships.

It’s the first day back to school for my 5 year-old son Nathan. He’s been talking about it for weeks. His mom took him out shopping a couple days ago to help pick out a cool new backpack because, well, lets face it—his red “School is Cool” pack just begged for merciless mockery. The one he picked out is a metallic sort of sky blue. I would have gone with black or camoflauge or even orange, but hey—at least it wasn’t pink.

We didn’t get him new shoes this year. My wife and I take turns feeling marginally guilty about this, but I continue to insist that the large basket full of hand-me-down shoes we’ve been collecting from people over the years is really quite sufficient. Nathan thought so too. Yesterday he asked if he could go to sleep in the pair he picked out so he wouldn’t forget to wear them to school today. That’s my boy.

I woke up this morning because the entire family, all three of them, were pushing and poking me. My wife thought this was a funny thing to do, and because she was laughing, our youngest son decided it was funny and was laughing too. Nathan poked me from beside the bed, fully dressed and already wearing his sky blue backpack. “Come on Daaad,” he urged with a smile. “We’re going to miss the school bus!”
A few minutes later and in a state of quasi-panic, I was stumbling out the door wearing who knows what, while Nathan led the way to the car. “Please make coffee!” I managed to croak at my wife before staggering into the car and peeling out.

When we pulled into the library parking lot, a kid-sized version of pandemonium broke out.
“Nathaaaaaaaaan!!!” shrieked an enthusiastic classmate named ‘Camden’ with charismatic glee, breaking away from a group of three small boys already waiting for ‘Lucy,’ the school bus. He never stopped running towards us, arms outstretched, until Nathan met him halfway, giggling loudly and jumping every few steps.

Nathan managed to get the first words out—
“Look at my new backpack!
“WOWW!!!” Every word was exclamation.
“I didn’t get a new backpack,” it was Camden’s turn, “but I got a new lunch box and sweatshirt!!” Nathan was genuinely enthralled at this revelation, responding without hesitation to Camden’s invite to feel the soft fleece lining of his hoody. This is the point where Johnny jumped into the conversation with his unique mixture of meteorological and fashion advice to the tune of “smokin’ hot.” These kids were making my morning.

While the 5 year-old, 6 year-old and 7 year-old launched into a rabbit-trail debate over which direction the smokin’ hot sun was rising from in it’s quest  to  scorch the earth, I watched the other 5 year-old in the group studying Nathan with immense concentration. He seems to be the kid who doesn’t say much until he has something really important to say. So far the only silent party, he suddenly became a legitimate participant. Pointing with surprise, his small furrowed eyebrows shot up as he Interrupted everyone and shouted—
“Nathan lost a tooth!”
Instantly, Nathan was surrounded, three-foot gawkers elbowing their way close to behold the wonder of the first lost tooth. Perhaps because there were a few other contenders for toothless popularity, their conversation moved with frightening speed to the topic of money. Specifically, how much? When Nathan reported that the Tooth Fairy had traded him fifty cents for his hardware, three parents looked directly at me and scowled. I shrugged, mostly because we’re poor, it’s the first tooth of a mouthful, and because we’ve settled on a fiscally reasonable policy that dictates bigger teeth will get a bigger payout. This one was dinky.

My attention was brought back to the young circle of friends when Camden, the six year-old, called their babbling conversation to attention with an authoritative “Now listen guys--!” And they listened. And as easily as a river encountering a boulder, the current of their conversation coursed in a different direction, and then another, until the meaning behind their words and their laughter had been lost out of sight, just downstream of adulthood and beyond the reach of care.

OUR DAILY BREAD (Last Sunday's Sermon)

Here at The Outpost, we've been working through a sermon series on The Lord's Prayer. After a few weeks off, we continued the series last Sunday by looking at the line "Give us this day our daily bread." Here is that sermon. I'd also like to thank the video crew for the still frame of me below that makes it look like I'm about to sneeze. Love you guys.

Confidence in Prayer: Our Daily Bread from Neighborhood Church of Redding on Vimeo.

OUTSIDE OF KARMA, Part 2 ~ 8/4/10

God of all grace, whose thoughts toward us are ever thoughts of peace and not of evil, give us hearts to believe that we are accepted in the Beloved; and give us minds to admire that perfection of moral wisdom which found a way to preserve the integrity of heaven and yet receive us there. Amen”  -- A.W. Tozer

If Karma is getting what we deserve, and the Bible defines PUNISHMENT as the only thing we actually deserve, where does grace fit into Karma? How do we escape the punishment that we deserve? That question suddenly becomes incredibly important when all the colorful petals are ripped off of Karma, leaving only jagged thorns.
So where does grace fit in?
Grace fits in by breaking out.
Grace breaks the equation of “you get what you deserve.”
It breaks it.
Grace packs its bags and moves outside the territory of ‘you’ve got it coming.’
Grace travels outside the clutches of karma because grace, by definition, means you don’t get what you deserve.

But there’s a catch. And it’s an important catch. Because it’s what differentiates ‘grace’ from ‘leniency.’ Do you get off scott-free because God is too loving and kind and grandfatherly to hold you accountable for the wrong you’ve done, winking at your sin while looking the other way? Oh no, that’s leniency, and it’s a way of thinking that holds no water according to Romans chapter 2, verses 3,4—“Do you suppose, O man…that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” You know what they say about assuming, don’t you? Presuming does the same thing.

Grace is not leniency, it’s not a loophole in the system of cosmic justice. Loopholes sidestep justice, but grace is only possible because cosmic justice has already been satisfied. Grace exists outside the reach of Karma only because justice has already been satisfied when it comes to the human heart before God. When I take someone out to lunch, they leave the restaurant without paying a cent, not because the meal was free or because we snuck out the back without paying, but because I picked up the tab. You and I can experience grace for free because the tab for justice has already been paid by someone else, making ‘Karma’ or penance or any other form of scale-balancing soul-punishment completely redundant, unnecessary and legally groundless. It’s a ‘double-jeopardy’ kind of thing; someone else has already been convicted for your crimes, in your name—you can’t be tried for them again. What you sent around, already ‘came around’ to someone else. So now you’re free to experience something outside the realm of Karma.
What you deserve has already been ‘gotten’ by someone else. So now you’re free to take in something outside of Karma.
The consequences of what you sowed, someone else has already ‘reaped.’ So now you’re free to harvest something outside of Karma.

In pastor Bill’s “Inner Mess” book, he quotes Lewis Sperry Chafer, who said, in 1933—
Grace is more than love; it is love set absolutely free and made to be a triumphant victor over the righteous judgment of God against the sinner.” You and I are able to experience grace because somebody did something that made it possible for God to let go of a valid grudge against you and love you instead. Isn’t that great? God loves you! But who set love absolutely free from behind the safety glass of justice, set it free to offer hope into the context of doom and judgment that hung over the heads of all humanity? Keep in mind, we’re talking about a righteous, holy judgment we all deserve—
So who did it?
Who broke the glass?
Who paid the tab for us?
Who set the love of God the Father absolutely free to be ‘shed abroad in our hearts’ (Romans 5:5), while we were still guilty of wrongdoing (Romans 5:8)?
God the Son, that’s who. We call Him Jesus.

The Bible says that justice decreed your death for your sin (Romans 6:23).
The Bible says that God was not satisfied with Justice on those terms (2 Peter 3:9).
God did not want you and everyone else on earth to suffer a powerless life and a  hopeless death because of your disobedience— but in order for the terms of justice to remain intact, for God to remain a just God, someone’s blood had to be spilled. That was the law, and the price-tag attached to breaking it; the tab had to be paid. He could not just do away with the law. That would have been leniency, irreparably tarnishing the holiness of God.
The Bible says that God chose to act in an unnecessary way that moved beyond the realm of justice, by involving Himself and allowing His Son Jesus to willingly act as a substitute for you. (John 3:16).
The Bible says that God the Father allowed His son to both satisfy the requirements of cosmic justice, and to do it in such a way that it counted for each and every person on earth (Romans 5:15-17). And because of ALL THAT—you can experience grace.

Grace travels outside of Karma.
Do you travel outside of grace?
If you want it, it’s yours:
In humility, repent—admit your faults to God and ask for forgiveness.
In gratitude, believe—that Jesus has already faced and satisfied a Justice much bigger than Karma, in your place.
And in faith, choose—to travel the rest of your life outside of the fear your past deserves.
Because with Jesus, the past is past—
And the future is freedom.

Surrounded By Grace,

OUTSIDE OF KARMA, Part 1 ~ 8/2/10

“[Grace] travels outside of Karma…” – U2, Grace

I love the way that line reads.
I love how simply these musicians, despite their faults, have captured a unique glimpse of grace. What do I mean?

Let’s start with a simple question: What is Karma? Or, at least, what do we generally mean when we Westerners use the word ‘Karma’ in everyday conversation?

Now, hold that thought for a second— for this post to work, we have to have an understanding up front that yes, I’m aware those of us who are Christians go beyond the concept of Karma because we believe in a personal source of justice and sovereignty called “God.”  I get that. I’m not advocating Karma as a valid system of measurement for evaluating the good and bad that happens in our world. BUT—for the sake of a line of thought—work with me. Okay?
So—what do people generally mean when they talk about ‘Karma?’

They mean, ‘what goes around comes around.’
They mean, ‘you get what you deserve.’
They mean, ‘you reap what you sow.’
They mean some impersonal force that acts to bring about some form of cosmic ‘justice,’ and they mean it in regards to both the good you do and deserve in return, as well as the bad. Although a strict Hindu or Buddhist might argue various and subtle differences in interpretation, that is what most people use the concept of Karma to symbolize in our culture. So, for the sake of our conversation here, let’s just say we’re talking about getting what you deserve.

I once read a book called “Died Laughing.” Although it was incredibly gruesome and macabre, it was also infectiously fascinating to me as a Junior High student. In it were chronicled hundreds of supposedly true stories about bizarre and ironic deaths throughout history. I ate it up. To the extent that it focused on getting what you deserve for doing ‘bad things,’ it was basically an encyclopedia of ‘death by Karma.’

For example, one story told of a man who, after trying to commit suicide through increasingly dramatic means and failing repeatedly, resigns himself to life, only to be accidentally trampled to death by a horse the next day. Another story told of two snipers in WWI, one British and one German, and the fierce, chess-like gun battle they waged against each other over the course of two days. Finally, the German prevailed, and a short time later happened upon the body of his adversary, who amazingly had died frozen in a perfect firing position, eye to his rifle. Deciding in a moment of pride to retrieve the dead man’s weapon as a trophy, the German proceeded to pry and wrestle the gun out of the corpse’s stiff hands. In the process however, the British soldier’s gun accidentally discharged, sending a bullet directly through the heart of its intended target, the German soldier. A perfect kill, delayed by time but not the grave. ‘They got what was coming to them,’ the book seemed to say—‘they got what they deserved.’ Karma.

Question—what do we really deserve?  Having grown up in Africa amidst much lower living standards, I can attest that we Americans are some of the most entitled people in the world. While many on the planet would be happy with two meals a day, most of us were born into a paradigm that claims the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” from day one. With that as the starting line, we’ve slid into a rut of entitlement that covers everything from cable TV in our homes to good cell-phone reception 100% of the time, no matter where we are. We just deserve it. But… what do we really deserve? 
Okay, bucket of ice-cold water time… just so we’re perfectly clear, the Bible says we don’t deserve anything good in our lives—we’re not entitled to the good stuff. The only thing human beings have truly earned, according to the Bible, is punishment. That’s because, according to the Bible, God drew a line in the sand at the beginning of human history and said, ‘Don’t cross that line, or else.’ And, according to the Bible, humanity shrugged its shoulders, stared God in the face, and stuck its toe across the line in an act of clear defiance. So that the Bible warns us in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” Justice is coming… so where does grace fit in?

In part 2 of this post I'll give my answer. Check back in!
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~