Costly Grace

Costly Grace

Free and cheap are not the same thing.   They are not even in the same ballpark.  In fact, the “free” things in your life will often be the most costly.   Everything costs something, to someone.   A free car will come with unforeseen expense.   And a free pet is anything but free.

Years ago we took our children to a local pet store in search of a cat.  The pet store hosted a pet adoption and it seemed a good idea to give a good home to a free, stray cat.   The adoptable cats ran the gamut of breeds, colours, and patterns.  But as we were perusing, the charming salesperson said, “and then we have this poor little kitten.”  Ushering my tender-hearted little girls to the back of the store she pointed out a tiny little calico with only one eye.   The girls were smitten.  All other options were off the table.  Their little motherly hearts went out to Callie and she joined our family.  She was freely adopted, but she was not cheap.

In addition to shots, spaying, and the usual pet expenses that confront a first-time pet owner, Callie lost her eye due to an infection shortly after she was born.  The cost of her vet care was not cheap.   She was free, but costly.  But she lived a long life in our family and was a most beloved cat.  Unlike many of our other cats, she loved to be with us, to be held by us, to stay close to us.    She would hear the approach of our car, run to the end of our long drive, and run ahead of us as we drove up – without fail.

The free things in our lives are often the most costly.   This is especially true of God’s grace.  It is absolutely free, but unbelievably costly.  It is the costliest thing in your life.   It is freely given and can only be received freely by faith.   Yet it’s cost to God was incalculable as His Son spent His life to fully pay the debt of justice that was ours to pay.

But it comes also at the cost of our lives as well.   When we are made new by God’s grace, the old passes away and the new comes.  But this new normal is a life lived under the Lordship of Christ for the glory of God the Father.  It is not simply forgiveness of sin and pardon from its consequences.   But we are united to Christ and undergo the work of sanctification wherein our sin is forsaken and holiness is pursued.    Grace is free. But it is not cheap.  On the contrary it is costly.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace and costly grace.

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate….

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. 

In the introduction to this book, Bonhoeffer famously observed that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  How far will you follow Christ?   In Luke 9, Jesus challenges three would-be disciples with just this question.  How far will you follow me?  Through what adversity?  Through what difficulty?  Jesus concluded these encounters with a startling statement. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The prophet Jeremiah was called to follow Christ down a difficult road.   Four decades of preaching fell on deaf ears.  No one listened.  No one responded.  He was hunted by the authorities and hated by his own friends and family.   He had no one to support him in his own grief over the judgment coming upon his people.   His only refuge was the Lord, but even the Lord often seemed distant.   All this comes to a crisis in Jeremiah 15 and the prophet confronts God and God calls Jeremiah to repent – to turn back from contemplating turning away.   The Lord reminds the prophet of His grace and his calling.  He reminds Jeremiah that the only way to stay close to Him is to follow wherever He leads.  Then the Lord calls him to an even rockier path.   He was not allowed to marry.  He was forbidden to be a part of the life of the community either in the joy of its feasts or the sorrow of its funerals.   His life would be a living sermon, declaring that God has also withdrawn from the life of the people.  How far will Jeremiah follow?

What about you?  How far will you follow Christ?  He offers grace and mercy freely.  But it is a costly grace.  It bids us to come and die.  Is there a place where you say, “here but no further?” Join us this Sunday, February 2, as we examine Jeremiah 16 and consider the costs of God’s call to follow.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

A Let Down

A Let Down

My twelve year-old son is the most optimistic person I know.  He loves technology and has boundless confidence that it will always work as advertised.  One particular app on his tablet just will not work.  We have researched, reconfigured, and run every diagnostic known to man – all to no avail.  Yet with every software update, he asks, with brimming expectancy, “Dad, I got an update.  Can we give it another try?”  As a recovering software engineer, I am steeped in pessimism, especially when it comes to software.  But nothing – not even repeated disappointments — can dampen Noah’s confidence that “today is the day” that the latest update will make everything right.  And time after time, we are let down by open systems that aren’t so open after all.

But life is full of let-downs — meals that bear little resemblance to the advertising and online products with five star ratings, 378 “awesome” reviews, and that one bad review that turns out to be the only faithful narrative.   And then there are social media friends who are really not friends.   Just in case you don’t realize, your social media friends are not really friends.  If they were not your friends before social media, they are not committed to anything more than spectating your life.

I recently crossed paths outside of cyberspace with an online “friend.”  She couldn’t quite place me.  I offered congratulations on her recent marriage and commented on the exciting places she traveled on her honeymoon.  Looking at me as though I was a stalker, she asked me how I knew.  Somewhat dejected, I said, “I’m your friend on Facebook.”   If you are depending on social media friends to be your friends, then I am sorry to say, you will be let down.

But live relationships let us down as well.   If you want to know if someone is really your friend, ask them to help you move.  Moving is a severe trial for the closest of friendships.   Years ago, Melanie and I were moving out of a second story apartment.  We moved almost everything ourselves, negotiating two flights of stairs with a narrow landing.  All that remained was a washer and dryer.   The dryer was not a problem, but our faithful old Maytag washer was crafted from heavy American steel and offered no easy hand-holds.   I called a close friend who lived nearby to help me get this last item into the truck.  After a few hems, lots of haws, and a flimsy excuse, I realized that we were operating on two different understandings of friendship.  I admit that our relationship never quite recovered from that let-down.

Every person you know is a sinner.  This guarantees that sooner or later you will be let down by someone close to you.   You don’t have to live very long to experience this.  But the pain is especially great when the let-down seems easily avoidable, or worse, intentional.   And the closer, more intimate the relationship, the greater the pain of this disappointment.   How do you recover?  How do you move forward?  How can your relationships survive a let-down?

The story of the prophet Jeremiah is a story of disappointments.   Four decades of preaching fell on deaf ears.  No one listened.  No one responded.  He was hunted by authorities and hated by his own friends and family.   He was not allowed to marry and lived a life of solitude and sorrow.   He had no one to support him in is own grief over the judgment coming upon his beloved people.   His only refuge was the Lord, but even the Lord seemed to him to be deaf to his prayers, unconcerned about his persecution, and unappreciative of his ministry.   All this comes to a crisis in Jeremiah 15 as the prophet confronts God.

Have you ever felt let-down by God?  Have you been disappointed when He seemed deaf to your prayer, unconcerned about your trials, and unappreciative of your obedience?   How will you respond? How will you move forward in following Him when he seems to have become an adversary?   Join us this Sunday, January 26, as we examine Jeremiah 15 and observe Jeremiah’s struggle to come to grips with a God who seems to have let him down.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

My father’s favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If-“, begins and ends with the following lines that have always resonated with me.

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:…
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

I admire those who are cool under pressure – neurosurgeons, fighter pilots, and mothers of small children.   While neurosurgeons and fighter pilots are trained to anticipate fast-moving crises, mothers daily face a host of unforeseeable emergencies.  No one can predict where a small child will climb, what he will find and then eat, or what deep existential questions she will ask.  Men, remember this when you ask your wife, ‘how was your day?  what did you do today?’ — brace yourselves.   Whatever challenges you overcame were child’s play compared to the ones fielded by your children’s mother.

I am always in awe of how my wife handles the moment of crisis.  She may be rattled to the core, but she never lets it show.  She is all business.  Assessing damage, applying relief, anticipating the next step and dialing back everyone else’s drama, even if her own is skyrocketing.   Her faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and providence is daily put to the test and refined into a thing of growing beauty and strength. Struggle is good. But it is still struggle.  It does not merit us anything, but it may mentor us.  Struggle is the agency of refinement. James, the brother of the Jesus, put it this way.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  James 1:2-4

Crisis is an unavoidable part of life in a fallen world.  We try out best to avoid it.  We have text and app alerts for weather, bank balances, family location or status changes, hoping to get ahead of a situation before it escalates.  We have more news feeds than Reuters, keeping us abreast of developing stories.  We insulate our lives with insurance, security systems, backup power, and our “emergency fund.”  After all, Dave Ramsey assures us that those with an “emergency fund” don’t have emergencies.   But what about those crises that are bigger than our plans or our preparation?  Crises like financial ruin, sickness and death, irreconcilable estrangements, and even national and natural disasters?  Crises which penetrate to the depths of our souls.  How do we manage when the crises are unmanageable?

Jeremiah was called to a ministry of crisis.  From his calling to his conclusion, Jeremiah’s life and ministry was one of sorrow and struggle.  He was a man of great faith in the midst of a faithless generation, called to preach judgment to his beloved people.  But as we read through Jeremiah’s preaching, as well as his emotional confessions and lamentations, we see a man who was,

never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s sufferings, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them….  [He bore] a message of divine judgement while at the same time sharing the sufferings of the people…. [He was a man] torn asunder between God and the people, to both of whom [he] was bound with deep ties.    The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson

As God’s people suffer His gracious, Fatherly discipline for their unrepentance and idolatry, Jeremiah struggles along with them.  And by observing his struggle, the Lord sets before us warning and direction as we wrestle with God’s chastening.  What will God’s refining work provoke in us?  Bitterness?  Accusation? Presumption?  Growing hardness?  Faith and repentance? Lustrous silver? Or only dross?

Join us this Sunday, January 12, as we examine Jeremiah 14 and consider how the prophet’s lament in a time of crisis warns and instructs us as we respond to God’s refining work.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Roadblocks

Roadblocks

It is a mathematical certainty that convenience and freedom are inversely proportional.  As one increases, the other decreases.  While it is convenient to use your iPhone to pay for your groceries, refill your prescriptions online, and conduct all your social and commercial activity through a device, those devices have a long memory.  Your digital footprints are never washed away by rain or wind.   What you gain in convenience, you lose in privacy.  And a loss of privacy is always, at some point, a loss of freedom.  Some of this you can control, some you cannot.

The explosive deployment of security cameras and “smart” devices which listen to your digital and audible conversation are things you cannot control well.  The potential that exists to surveil and be surveilled is staggering.   I don’t know if Big Brother is watching, but chances are someone is.   But that loss in privacy, whether consciously or unconsciously, also comes with some remarkable gains in terms of convenience and knowledge.   We have virtually instant access to the current state of our finances, our work, our family member’s location, the temperature, humidity, and occupants of our home, and even the comfort or discomfort of our pets.   And, thanks to the Arkansas Department of Transportation, we can see all the roadblocks awaiting us on the highways and byways.

Arkansas roadways are characterized by three variables that make roadblocks a probability, if not a certainty – a high commercial to personal vehicle ratio, utterly non-intuitive and highly fluid construction zones, and the incomprehensible mystery of merge ramps and four-ways stops to the populace at-large.  In the face of these challenges, Idrivearkansas.com has given us the power to navigate and overcome traffic jams, roadway accidents, construction zones, snow and ice, and even flooded highways.  But what about the other road blocks we face in life?  Discouragement, grief, physical and emotional limitations, self-doubt, insecurity, unforeseen circumstances, and most significantly, our own sin and selfishness.

The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  But what if that race has pitfalls, hurdles, stiff competitors, weakness, and weariness?   It sounds so simple, but how can we navigate the roadblocks that will inevitably appear in 2020?   The rest of the verse gives the answer.

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2

The good news, the gospel, announced at Christmas is that God has not left us in an estate of sin and misery, but offers deliverance through a Redeemer.  A Redeemer who removed all the roadblocks that alienate us from God and one another, the insurmountable ones – sin and death.  This gospel is the power to push through, over, and around these roadblocks.   It not only navigates eternal life, but life here and now.

What roadblocks await you this year?  Some, you may know or anticipate. Some are known only to God but will catch you by surprise.  How will you navigate them?  Notice what the passage above says.  It is not faith in ourselves or our abilities that allows us to push through, to run with perseverance.   But it is faith in the one who has already pushed through and run with perseverance on our behalf.    Resolutions are good, but mere resolve will not overcome what lies ahead.  May the Lord grant you faith in the One who has already overcome and so, make you an overcomer as well.

Join us this Lord’s Day, January 5, as we begin 2020 by looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

The Seasonal Aisle

The Seasonal Aisle

There was a time in the not so distant past, when helpful associates at the local discount mega-store were truly helpful.   They were plentifully deployed, clearly identified, and well trained to help you navigate the labyrinth of every-day-low-prices.   Rather than simply quote “aisle and shelf” when asked about a product, they would personally guide you to what you sought.  But those are bygone days.  Now, if you are able to find someone who confesses to be an employee, asking a real poser like, “where will I find the ginger” you may be told, “I don’t think we have that, it’s seasonal.”    “It’s seasonal” is code-speak for “I don’t know what your asking, I don’t know where it might be, and I don’t want to help you find it.”   The seasonal aisle is the default destination for wayward retail pilgrims and the default answer to every inquiry by new-world retail associates.

The seasonal aisle also defines the parameters of our celebrations.  With festival calendars indexed to retail sales, it is aisle 13 that heralds the time to start and stop all holiday observance.   Valentines begins at 5:00 pm on December 25 and lasts until 5:00 pm on February 13, when Easter takes over until it gives way to Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween and then Christmas again.   We spin — always moving toward the sign, but never resting in the things signified.  The seasonal aisle tells us when to decorate and undecorate, how to celebrate, and how to move on.   This artificial cycle of celebration is calculated to keep us in a state of longing.  Like chasing a rainbow or a mirage on a hot summer day, you never get to that place you strive to reach.   As soon as you think you are there, the next season is set out on the seasonal aisle and the men of Vanity Fair command us, “buy, buy our merchandise!”

This is especially true of the Christmas season.  With all of its hype and décor, it comes and goes and then dumps us out into the cold, dark, grey of January.   We long for its hope, peace, love and joy to last, but the seasonal aisle tells us to move on.   But perhaps we need to look elsewhere for our direction.   While the Bible speaks of feasts and special celebrations, God has established a weekly celebration that invites us to abide, dwell, and rest in all the great mysteries to which these celebrations point.  The invitation is not for us to hurriedly pass through one season and then another, but to abide in the One in whom all those feasts find fulfillment.   Our seasonal celebrations point to the great ideas of love, freedom, relationships, sacrifice and joy.  But the Lord’s Day invites us to love and be loved, find deeper freedom, and experience transcendent joy all through a relationship with the one who reconciled us to an Eternal God through powerful sacrifice.   How do we make Christmas and Easter last throughout the year?  How do we avoid the post-holiday blues that come from sensing that holding on to the feelings of the season is like trying to grasp oil?   Simple, by delighting to know the One signified rather than being content just to observe the sign.  And by learning to index our lives to the Lord’s Day, not to the Seasonal Aisle.

During this Christmas season, perhaps you have mediated on the great texts of scripture that speak of the Incarnation; Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2, John 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, and too many passages to reference from Isaiah and Hebrews.  The angel’s word to the shepherds is also for you, “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”   You have no doubt, heard the promise and received its invitation.   But have your received and rested in the One promised?  The promise of this “great mystery, Christ manifest in the flesh,” is not to receive merely hope, peace, love and joy, but rather to receive Christ, Himself.   The Reformers were fond of saying, “to know Christ, is to know His benefits.”  Only by receiving Him will those benefits follow.  Apart from Him they are just a mist, that appears for a little while and then is gone.

Join us this Lord’s Day, December 29, as we examine Colossians 2:6-7 and consider how to receive and walk in the great offer this season declares.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

The Grace of Receiving

The Grace of Receiving

A long time ago, the Christian author, Gary Chapman, penned an important book, entitled “The Five Love Languages.”  He noted that every person communicates and perceives love in one or more ‘languages.’  These languages include physical touch and closeness, acts of service, gift giving, encouraging words, and quality time.   Think about that for a moment.  How do you communicate and perceive love?  What love language is your native tongue?  Perhaps you are multi-lingual when it comes to these love languages.  My mother-in-law was like this.  She spoke every one of these languages fluently, but her lingua franca was without a doubt, gift giving.

Her love of gift giving was prodigious.  It would be an understatement to say that she sometimes went over the top.  Especially when grandchildren were involved.  She was always thinking of just the apt gift.   Throughout the year, whenever someone expressed a need or desire, she would purchase and wrap their heart’s desire and tuck it away in somewhere in her house.  There are probably still hidden gifts wrapped and tucked away at MaMa’s.  While Santa has to be told what children want, MaMa always knew.  Her radar always detected exactly what would satisfy the longing hearts of her beloved.

But gift giving for her was not merely apt selection and presentation.  She created a whole dramatic narrative surrounding the giving of gifts.   Her true aim was to create joy.  She delighted to delight.  She needed to be present when the gifts were opened so that she might rejoice with the joy of the receiver.  She needed to hear the squeals, see the surprise, and sense the gratitude.  That was, for her, the gift received in the giving of gifts.  Her greatest desire was to bring joy to others.   Gifts graciously received were her greatest delight.

Christmas after Christmas, I saw, shining through the life of my mother-in-law, the heart of a Heavenly Father, who gives the gift of His Son that we might find true and abiding joy.  Like my mother-in-law, our Heavenly Father delights to hear and see and receive our gratitude in response to His grace.  In Luke 15, in the midst of three parables about being lost and found, Jesus twice notes that, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Many stories in the Bible illustrate this, but no story pictures this as powerfully as that of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20.  Here as the Lord of glory is born into quiet obscurity the only announcement is given to shepherds, the most despised and outcast class of society.  These enigmatic shepherds were the most unlikely of converts — men who were notoriously under suspicion, who were rejected from temple worship due to their habitual and ritual uncleanness, and whose word was not acceptable in the courts.  If anyone had hope to receive God’s goodwill and favor because of their works it was not these men.  Yet these were the men to whom God announced, “for unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Unto “you!”  No one gave these men anything, but unto them God had given a savior!

Their response is a powerful testimony to the joy that comes when the hopeless find hope.    They urgently flee Christ.   Finding him, they tell everyone they meet then return to their sheep glorifying and praising God.  These unlikely converts exhibit the joy of a changed life.  Their priorities, their conversation, and their way of life are radically transformed.  Their circumstances did not change, but they were changed in the middle of their circumstances.  Men who were outcasts with God and man, were now Sons of the Most High and the first human evangelists.  Their joy was uncontained and unrestrained.

Do you have that kind of joy?   If not, perhaps it is because you have not experienced the grace of receiving.   God has offered you a great gift.  He delights for you to receive it and find joy.  Join us this Lord’s Day, December 22, as we examine the story of the shepherds in Luke 2 and consider how finding Jesus changes our lives and brings joy.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Getting Christmas

Getting Christmas

Our family has many Christmas traditions – the annual tree pilgrimage, dinner at The Grapevine, the Christmas Cake, the advent storyboard calendar, and iconic holiday movies, which for us include Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the ever-poignant, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Despite its ancient vintage, Charles Shultz’ classic cartoon commentary on Christmas confusion is spot on.   What is the point of this ever-expanding season each year?  Lucy touts community involvement, Sally just wants her fair share and Snoopy capitalizes on Christmas commercialism.  But Charlie Brown just doesn’t get Christmas.   His epic fail in choosing a Christmas tree brings his contemplation to a head in the following exchange with Linus.

Charlie: I guess you were right Linus; I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I don’t really know what Christmas is about. Isn’t there anyone who understands what Christmas is all about?

Linus: Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Linus goes to center stage, spotlight. Linus: “And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Linus: That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Linus points Charlie in the right direction, but there is much, much more to this story – a story that has its origins in eternity past and its implications in eternity future, a story of epic failure and dramatic rescue, a story that reveals a God who is quite different from the one our fears imagine. As singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson puts it.

Gather round, ye children come
Listen to the old, old story
Of the pow’r of Death undone
By an infant born of glory
Son of God, Son of Man.

Come and experience the rest of this story in God’s own words and in song as we share in An Evening of Lessons and Carols together at 5:00 pm on Sunday, December 15, in the Commons at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, 8300 Kanis Rd, Little Rock.  For directions click here or contact us for more details.   We look forward to seeing you there.