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Uncensored Grace

Recently I was asked to speak at Lincoln Christian University (www.lincolnchristian.edu) for their chapel services on the topic of "Uncensored Grace." That's not much to go on, but I went with it and started to think about what "uncensored" grace might mean. Jud Wilhite, pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, wrote a book titled Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas. The book tells the stories of people far from God who experienced His transforming grace. God's grace is "uncensored," because it reaches out to the hurting, broken, and disenfranchised at their point of need. We don't get our act together, clean up our lives and then come to God and receive His grace. We receive God's grace through Jesus Christ, and He makes us clean.


Some churches, however, "censor" God's grace, meaning they suppress, edit, or delete it. Just like the older brother in Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), we want to withhold grace from certain individuals, because we believe they don't deserve it. But that's the point, isn't it? None of us deserves God's grace. If we're willing, we can receive it "uncensored"--unedited, unfiltered, and unaltered. And we can be agents of grace as we reach out to others who may be far from God, love them, and introduce them to the One who bestowed grace on us, Jesus Christ.


There are times in life when it seems like God has censored His grace from us. Consider a couple who loses a child. Has God withheld, suppressed, or edited His grace for them? How about the couple who, for whatever reason, has been unable to have a child? Has God censored His grace? And then we see marriages rich in joy and delight and parents with happy, healthy children, and it seems that the reverse is true: God has lavished on them His uncensored grace.


In our American, pop-theology, we have the formula: Blessings = Uncensored Grace and Problems = Censored Grace. If you're facing challenges, hardships, difficulties, and pain, then it must be that God is withholding His grace. But if you're happy, healthy, and whole, then you must be one of the "lucky" ones upon whom God opened the spigot of grace.


In the Old Testament, Job lost everything (except his wife). His "friends" came to him with this same formula and tried to get Job to see the error of his ways and repent. There had to be some hidden sin in his life in order for God to censor His grace and Job to be cursed. Job defends his integrity and character, and eventually lashes out to God at the injustice of His suffering. God responds by affirming His sovereignty and His covenant relationship with Job, even in spite of Job's suffering.


The entire book of Job points out that formulaic approaches to receive God's grace are misguided, and that in our lowest point of suffering, God uncensors His grace. It's in the darkness we need a light to shine all the brighter. When things are going well in life, yes, God's grace is there. But when things aren't going well, it doesn't mean God's grace and presence are gone. In those moments, we draw on His uncensored grace to give us light and warmth. We turn to Him who is "our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling" (Psalm 46:1-3). God's uncensored grace reaches out to us, for even in those moments, "the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress" (Psalm 46:11). 

"Getting Back at It When You've Been Away From It"

Today is my first day back in the office after getting back from Kenya. You know how it can be a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a vacation? It's like that for me after a week visiting missionaries, experiencing a different culture, customs, food, and preaching and teaching. So, the following reflections are therapeutic, but I hope they can be helpful to you the next time you're trying to get back into the routine after some time away. Here are some suggestions on how to "get back at it when you've been away from it."


First, have realistic expectations. If you've been away from work or your normal routine, and you're trying to re-engage, be realistic. Don't expect too much, too soon. Acknowledge that you will most likely face some depression and feel overwhelmed. That's okay. Sometimes the only way you can work through something is simply to work through it. I know that's not rocket science, but it's true. Put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward. But make sure you keep moving forward.


Second, stay focused. It's easy to feel overwhelmed with all the emails, voice mails, and snail mails you need to attend to after you've been away. Plus, you have all your regular demands of meetings, preparing for meetings, and other duties on your job description. Even as I type this, my mind is beginning to race out of control in thinking of the many tasks ahead of me this week. My heart starts pounding faster, and I find myself taking shorter breaths. That's when I need to stop, pray, and re-focus. I can't get to item #323 on my to-do list until I get past item #1, so why worry about #323 when I can't do anything about it right now anyway? I heard today of a couple who recently decided to leave our church, because we're not up to par in our discipleship ministry. I agree; we have a lot of room to improve. Discipleship is foundational to the ministry of the Church. I'm all about discipleship. I'm so concerned about discipleship that I wrote my doctoral thesis on The Discipleship Journey: Developing and Reproducing Disciples Through the Cell-Model of Ministry. But we haven't been able to develop a more comprehensive, church-wide model yet, because we've had a few other pressing matters to deal with over this past year. We're working on it, and we're beginning to lay the groundwork for some significant growth in this area, but it takes time. Unfortunately, we couldn't move fast enough for this particular family, but we're getting there. Remember, don't get overwhelmed. Stay focused, take a deep breath, pray, and take one step at a time.


Third, smile. Why should you smile? Because ultimately Jesus is in control, and that should make you smile. "Don't be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). You can smile, because at the end of the day, regardless of what you went through and how difficult it may have been, Jesus is still on the throne, and you're not. One of my recurring prayers is, "Jesus, thank You that You are the head of this church, and I'm not. These are Your people, and I pray You would show me how to shepherd and lead them." This is my pressure-release valve. I can let out a huge sigh in knowing that Jesus is never caught off guard, even if I am.


In the movie The Pianist, Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician who survives the Holocaust by holing up in a Polish house during the German occupation. A German commander discovers Szpilman, who by this time is nearing death from starvation, and he notices Szpilman eyeing a piano in the middle of the nearly-destroyed home. He asks Szpilman if he plays the piano, and then he tells him to sit down and play. And there, in the midst of the rubble and ruin and in the thick tension between this German officer and this hideaway Jew, Szpilman sits down and begins to play the most melodic, beautiful concerto the German officer has ever heard. A radiant smile breaks out on the faces of Szpilman and the officer, even though their entire world has crumbled around them. The music transcends the violence and transforms the moment, and it was reflected in something as simple as a smile.


If you're trying to jump start your engine and get back into the routine at work or school, be realistic, stay focused, and above all things, smile, because God is greater than whatever you're facing. "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).


 

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