Category Archives: grace

Broken and Unbroken Promises

I have been neglecting my blog for several months for no good reason.  Recently I was contacted by the congregation where I was confirmed, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA.  They are celebrating their 70th anniversary this fall and was seeking stories from former congregation members.  My confirmation experience became a kind of crossroads in my spiritual life so I will share it here as well.

Emmanuel Lutheran BremWA

Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bremerton, WA

Pastor Orville Crawford was my 9th grade confirmation teacher and our class of about twenty boisterous teenagers met most Wednesday evenings in the basement of Emmanuel. We struggled to memorized Luther’s Small Catechism. Being a good student, I struggled less than others. God had given me a sharp mind that grabbed new concepts quickly. I was also active in the small Sunday afternoon Luther League activities, so Pastor Crawford knew me well.

In the spring, as our Confirmation Sunday drew near, Pastor Crawford had a concern. At that time, communion was restricted to confirmed members and thus our first communion would come the Sunday following our confirmation. We were to receive communion as a class, sitting together in the front of the church, just as we would do on our confirmation Sunday. Pastor Crawford was concerned that not all the class would be present for the first communion because it would fall on Memorial Day Week-end that year. So he asked me, “John, how many of your confirmation classmates will be there for the First Communion?” I had no idea, so I said, “I don’t know, but you can count on me being there!” I remember how confident my promise was to him.

Our confirmation Sunday went smoothly. I was very excited to confess my faith in Jesus Christ and become an active member of the congregation. However, that afternoon some friends approached me about going on a backpack trip the next week-end into the Olympic Mountains. It would be my first such trip. I was torn. I remembered my promise to Pastor Crawford, but also wanted to try backpacking. My parents said it was my decision, since I had completed confirmation. With only a brief hesitation, I decided to go backpacking.

Lower Lena Lake

Lower Lena Lake where we camped. It rained most of the week-end.

When I returned I discovered that I was the only member of my confirmation class not present for the first communion Sunday!

Yet when I next came to worship Pastor Crawford did not chastise or judge me. He simply welcomed me to the Lord’s Table, delighted that I was there. I felt loved and forgiven.

What I learned from that experience is that God’s Grace is not about what promises I make to God, but about God’s promises to us. I might make lofty promises to God or God’s people, only to discover that I fail to keep them. Yet God does not hold that against me. God is always willing to welcome me in love. Jesus promises to forgive and heal us. “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Also as an ordained pastor, I have worked to follow Pastor Crawford’s example of grace and hospitality.

The ironic thing is I learned to love backpacking as a member of Emmanuel’s Luther League.  Every summer during high school we made a long hike in Olympic National Park. That love (along with the love of God) continues with me as I prepare to return to the PCT in Washington next week.

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The Lap of God

Nearly forty years ago my wife-to-be introduced me to an image of God that has shaped my life ever since.  She wrote me a letter in which she described how God as king invited me into his great heavenly throne room. She described the room as filled with the beauty and wonder fit for a king and how at first I felt overwhelmed.  God then encouraged me to come right up to the throne (like a small child approaching his beloved parent).  With great love and warmth, God’s mighty arms picked me up and placed me on his lap, where I am safe, warmed and filled with love.

I think of that image each Christmas when we read from the beginning of John’s gospel and the coming of the Word of God, Jesus.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, (John 1:12)

Madonna and JesusI also imagine the inverse of the image when I read the Christmas story of Luke, when Jesus is wrapped in clothes and laid in a manger.  I don’t think the infant Jesus spent all his time lying in that manger.  Like any proud parent, Jesus was held in the lap of Mary and Joseph.   Not only are we invited to sit in God’s lap, but God invites us to hold his son when we hold a child of God in love.  As Jesus reminded his followers in his parable from Matthew 25,  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

The image blazed with light again this past Sunday when I worshiped with my son and daughter-in-law at Christ Presbyterian Church.  Their evening service, called the Table, normally has communion, but for the fourth Sunday in Advent they had a candle lighting ritual instead.   On the platform steps there were placed over a hundred small votive candles and lighting sticks.  We were invited to come forward and light a candle as a sign that we are “waiting” for our savior.   I lit a candle with the rest of the family, but I noticed that my son did not return to the pew afterwards.  A few moments later my wife nudged me and pointed to the candles.  My son had returned to the sanctuary with our 2-year-old grandson, Jack.  My son was helping Jack light a candle.   Afterwards he and Jack came back to the pew and Jack opened his arms for me to hold him.  As we sang a Christmas carol of Emmanuel, God with Us, I felt tears of joy and grace fill my eyes and flow down my cheek.   I was being held in the lap of God, even as I was embraced by a tiny child of God.  O the wonder of God’s grace.

My wife Carolyn and I hold in our laps two children of God, Grace and Jack.

My wife Carolyn and I hold in our laps two children of God, Grace and Jack.

May you be held by the love of God in this Christmas season.

Judging First Impressions

First impressions get me into trouble.  Does that happen to you?

Copyright:'http://www.123rf.com/profile_dolgachov'>dolgachov / 123RF Stock PhotoWhen I meet someone for the first time, I often make some snap decision regarding them based on their handshake, body size, facial expression, and or taste in fashion.  It sometimes feels like I am giving an instant “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” judgment before any word is spoken.  Such snap decision can then color how my conversation goes with the person and what I think of them.

And a big part of my problem with this is that I don’t even realize that I am doing it!

Jesus’ words, “do not judge, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1) are a clear warning for me to examine my judgmental character.   And his story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector highlights how as a religious person I can easily judge others.

 “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man.  The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man.  I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’  “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'”  Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” (Luke 18:10-14, The Message)

My first step in becoming less judgmental is first to recognize that I am doing it all the time.   I judge in the morning whether I like or dislike the weather outside my window.  I judge whether my breakfast is tasty, my coffee is too cold, or my attitude is too cranky.  Mindfulness meditation has helped me to see that these judging thoughts are simply that: thoughts or feelings that are not always reality.

Now when I recognize a judging thought,  I simply observe it and note its existence.  I may investigate to see what its history and/or cause may be.  Then I can decide whether I want to hold on to it or let it go (in a sort of non-judgmental way).

For example: I met up with some of my buddies for a bike ride and a new person is there whom I have not met.  I might scan their bike and see how new and/or what make it is as a way to size up what kind of cyclist they may be.   I look at what clothes they wear and how fit they appear.   These first impressions all take but a few seconds, but they can easily color my opinion of the n1964_schwinn_varsity_super_sportew person.

If I were to stop and investigate these impressions, I would remember how I felt when I had an old Schwinn ten speed bike and rag-tag cycling gear.  Also I would remember cycling with people who did not look fit yet could easily outride me.  I recognize these “judgments,” and their accompanying feelings, then set them aside as I introduce myself to the new rider.   Who knows, they may become a new friend.

Here is a link to a video that describes non-judging from a mindfulness training perspective.

How do you live out Jesus’ words, “judge not”?

Lord Jesus, grant me grace to see each person, each moment, as a gift from you.

Non-striving Grace

I strive to do well yet my striving often brings me grief and disappointment. When I train to run a marathon, I find myself striving to practice hard, only to become injured and unable to reach the starting line. In preaching, I strive to preach a perfect sermon, only to discover that I have frustrated myself and the congregation.  Or when I rush to make a blog post and my wireless network crashes, I feel frustration.  The constant hum of push, push, push, wears me down.

TSBB_Frustration-440x293

Last summer I was backpacking in the mountains, a trip I had anticipated for months.  Yet I frequently found my mind striving and shifting to somewhere else.   I found it extremely hard to simply BE in the moment.  My mind kept jumping to some other place and time.

IMG_20130816_105142_210Is “push, push, push, strive, strive, strive” the center of the Christian gospel? Is constant striving to do more, to do better, and to do all, is that living by grace? Doesn’t God’s grace free me from such obsessive striving?  Doesn’t God’s peace allow me to simply be in the present moment?

In my recent study of mindfulness training, one central is non-striving. Being able to accept what my limits are in body, mind and spirit has had a freeing aspect for me.  Non-striving has been a word of grace for me.  Below is a you-tube video that explains non-striving in a grace-filled way.

The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Phil 4:7

 

Living Grace

Baptized and raised in the Lutheran church, I have heard the word “grace” all my life.   I learned that grace is God’s unconditional love. We are placed in a right and loving relationship with God not by our moral actions or good work, but by God’s gift of grace through Jesus Christ as I trust in God’s promise of grace.

As a young adult I memorized Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.   

Though I intellectually understand this, I don’t fully live into it.  Like many Americans I have grown up with the central concept of doing, striving and accomplishment – that I must work hard to get anywhere in this world, even in the church or with God.   The idea that I can live, breath, and experience grace as a daily gift is challenging for me.

Frederick Beuchner expands my images of grace in his book, Beyond Words (2004).

raspberries-and-cream-bpGrace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams.  Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace.  Somebody loving you is grace.  Loving somebody is grace.  Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial centrality of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.  There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

God created the universe and each of us as a gift of grace.

God created the universe and each of us as a gift of grace.

The grace of God means something like: “Here is your  life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you. Nothing can separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.”

There is only one catch.  Like any gifts, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. (p. 139)

How have you experienced GRACE daily?

Lord Jesus, teach me to live by grace.

Lite or Light Christian

My baptism with Aunt Nola Mathre

My baptism with Aunt Nola Mathre

I grew up in a loving Christian home. My parents had me baptize when I was six weeks old and brought me to the worship services at church throughout my childhood. For the most part I enjoyed going to church. Sunday school, especially the Bible stories, was something I grasped easily. I grew up singing and believing the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” I never wandered too far from church or faith.

Several of my high school and college friends rebelled against the faith. Drinking, drugs or other addictive behavior pulled some of them out of the “safe” environment of church and family. Others just sorted of drifted away out of boredom or dissatisfaction. Meanwhile I continued to find meaning and identity as a Christian, even at a secular college.

Conversion by Caravaggio

Conversion by Caravaggio

Other friends had powerful religious conversions in which their lives made a 180 degree turn. They had been running away from God or ignoring him, but one day they embraced faith in Christ and their life changed. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, they had seen the light and struck down by God’s grace (Acts 9:1-5). Like Paul, they were zealous for others to come out of darkness and into the light.

I marveled at their stories of transformation. Part of my wonder was a sincere praise for God’s amazing grace towards His children. But part of my marvel was envy. I never had the “amazing” conversion story of being trapped in darkness and seeing the light. Among my evangelical friends, I felt somewhat inadequate.

Once, when I was camping after college, I started a conversation with two women my age. The conversation turned to religious faith and they asked me the fateful evangelical question, “When did you become a Christian?” I responded, “When I was baptized.” Since I was baptized as an infant, they could not comprehend this. I did not fit their standard of being old enough to “ask Jesus into my life.”  I was not “real” Christian in their eyes.

For some time I thought of myself as “Lite” Christian, not having the full-conversion experience that my evangelical friends had. But now I see myself more as a Light Christian, who has had the joy of living in God’s light all my life. Christ is the source of light and I am thankful for every time it shines on me. As Paul proclaims, For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Have you ever wrestled with feelings of inferiority in your faith?

Lord Jesus, let your light shine in and through me.

The Path Chosen

I subscribe to other blogs and two recent posts caught my attention. Both had stunning pictures and described walking in a kind of spiritual wonder and beauty.  I appreciate each photo and  written reflection.  They described paths I yearn to follow.

The first is from Jacob Schriftman.

Morning Walk in Heaven

I love to walk beside the ocean.  One of my most memorable runs was along Seven Mile beach in c, Jamaica.

The second photograph is from Sister Pat Farrell, OP,  a Dominican Sister of San Rafael.

Muir Woods Trail

I also love to hike forest paths.  I am looking forward to a hike this summer on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Yet today, on the first day of spring, my morning run in St. Paul, Minnesota, was on snow and ice. I felt somewhat deprived. I grumbled and complained as I ran. This is not path I would have preferred.    Then I watched a video on the beauty of trail running even in snow.  (It is only two minutes in length, yet inspirational.)

Show me your ways, oh Lord, teach me your paths.  Whether snow-covered or not, teach me to walk, run, and dance with you though all circumstances and situations.