EASTER: ALL ABOUT GRACE

We are uncomfortable with grace. We cannot get our minds around it, or adjust our feelings to it. It upends our inner scale of justice because most of us live under the merit system.

A murderer gets the death penalty and we’re okay with that. It makes sense to us. We resonate with reward, and punishment. Do good, work hard, keep your nose clean, and you will be rewarded. Be selfish, be mean, be slack, be criminal, and you get what you deserve.

But deserve and reward are words that have no meaning under grace. That is the scandal –- even a Timothy McVeigh can receive a full pardon from God.

“For the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is something we earn. Life is a gift.

If you have trouble absorbing that, consider these three thoughts.

Grace Is Costly

Justice was done. Sin was paid for but not by us. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the film The Last Emperor, a young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command.

“What happens when you do wrong?” asks his brother.

“When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy king answers. To demonstrate, he shatters a jar, and one of his servants is beaten.

God reversed that pattern. When the servants sinned, the king was punished. Grace is free only because the giver has born all the cost.

Grace Is Extravagant 

Think of the parable Jesus told about the lost sheep (See Luke15). The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, vulnerable to theft, wolves, and wandering, to find the one, and then celebrates with friends.

That’s extravagant.

I would say, “Miserable little ingrate sheep. Let him wander. Wolves would do me a favor if they ate him.” But not God. God’s grace is extravagant.

Grace is Overwhelming

Some of us have done things that we are ashamed to admit, and some of us have done things–violent things, cruel things, and heartless things–that, in the clear light of day, horrify us. Not only would we never tell someone else about them, we can hardly tell ourselves. Some of us still find ourselves, long after putting faith in Christ, doing things we regret deeply and cannot explain.

The Apostle Paul was like that. He confessed, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” and “ … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[1]

That same grace — God’s Amazing Grace — is here, now, offered to us. The resurrection proved that it is true. That is why we celebrate Easter.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7:18-19, 24-25.

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

THE BIBLE, THE KORAN, AND CULTURE

“Did Rick Warren say that Christians and Muslims worship the same god?”

My friend’s question over breakfast last week caught me off guard. “I doubt it,” I said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that someone had misinterpreted something Rick said.”

I was right and you can read more about that at ChristianExaminer.com / did-Rick-Warren-convert-to-islam-no-no-and-no, by Gregory Tomlin. But the question reminded me how often people conflate the two religions.

This came home to me forcefully one day as I was explaining the differences between Christianity and Islam to two friends when one said, “Hey, one religion is as good as another. The Bible and the Koran are essentially the same kind of book.”

The truth is very different. Christianity and Islam are entirely different religions and the Bible and the Koran are completely different books. But imagine that you are sitting with a friend and the topic comes up. Would you be able to offer, in simple language, what distinguishes these two books and the two religions they represent?

No? Let me help you.

The Authorship is Different

The Koran was dictated by an illiterate man over the course of twenty-three years who claimed that he was hearing the voice of an angel.

The Bible was written by dozens of men over more than a thousand years who claimed to be moved by the Spirit of God to write. Some were scholars, some poets, some kings, some shepherds, some were priests, and some were prophets. Yet all had a uniform message: That God would save his people from their sins.

The Bible is thus connected to thousands of years of human history. The Koran is connected to three decades in the 7th Century. Muhammad believed that he was reciting a book that already existed in heaven. It is like an assortment of instructions and advice not specifically tied to any historical event. The Bible, through all of its authors, tells one story of God’s work over time through actual historical events, most of which have been validated by research.

But most importantly for us, the impact of the two books is different.

The Impact is Different

In 2006 England arrested 24 suspects in a plot to blow up ten U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives. In 2007 German authorities broke up a “massive” bombing plot against American interests in Germany. And of course, no one will forget the Fort Hood murderer, the would-be Times Square bomber, the Boston bombers, Charlie Hebdo, Paris, San Bernadino, or Orlando. All of these actions were perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam.

Not everyone who reads the Koran ends up being a terrorist. But that’s not the issue. Why would anyone – why do so many who read it – end up believing that Allah authorizes terrorism and murder?

I’m a conservative, evangelical Bible teacher. That means I believe the Bible is God’s word and that it is my authority for faith and practice. It also means that I’m very careful about interpreting it. I use the historical, grammatical, critical method of interpretation. I’m looking for historical context – who was the author? When did he write? To whom was he writing? What did he actually say (vocabulary, grammar, structure)? What did it mean to the original readers? How does that meaning apply in our cultural context?

Because of what the Bible teaches people from our church and many others participate in: Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, The Good Samaritan, disaster recovery, crisis pregnancy centers, GriefShare, and countless other acts of love and service.

That’s the impact of the Bible, properly interpreted and taught, in our culture. Why does the Koran not have the same affect? I’ll let my friend Samer, a former Sunni radical and now a Christian missionary to the Islamic world, conclude.

“As Christians we must be very emphatic that Christians have and continue to do many shameful things in the name of Christ, but the issue is this: Christians who use violence in the name of God to destroy their enemies have no justification for their actions from Jesus Christ, his life and teachings as found in the New Testament. Whereas, Muslims who are engaged in violence and destruction of anyone who opposes Islam, have ample justification for their actions from the Qur’an (using the Historical /Grammatical /Critical approach to interpretation) and the life and sayings of prophet Muhammad (the Hadith).”

“It is beyond doubt that the prophet of Islam did encourage the killing and intimidation of his enemies, not just in self defense as it is commonly reported by Muslims, but in the promotion of the cause of Allah and the spread of Islam.”

“Needless to say, the actions of the prophet were in direct contradiction to the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ and his disciples. So the point is not that Christians have never resorted to violence and other horrible atrocities. They have indeed committed many horrible acts, but when they have done this, they have betrayed the very person that they claim to follow. But when Muslims commit such acts, they can in fact claim that they are following the example of their prophet and thus fulfilling the will of God and promoting His cause. That, certainly, is a big difference!”