The Ecosystem of Grace

Several months ago I wrote an article about the joy of pausing in the moment of confession; telling God about my total unworthiness, acknowledging my wrongs, and even admitting ways I acted wickedly. I suggested we stop right there in that moment.


A Christian leader canceled his subscription and emailed me to explain. He said my suggestion that “we chronicle our wrongdoing” is “just wrong.” His approach in life is to remember he is made in the image of God and that he has been given a new heart.

Then he explained how he deals with criticism. When friends say he “seems arrogant,” he says that they confuse his confidence with arrogance; but they can have his high level of confidence if they would just realize their own goodness. He suggested I try it.

My inner response was a bit different. I thought, “What a jerk! Doesn’t he know the difference between gospel confidence and worldly arrogance? Can’t he examine himself honestly when others criticize him?”

The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that his approach is just wrong. And the more I thought of him, the more I became … arrogant.

Like my friend, and many before him, in my attempts to feel good about myself, I abandoned grace. I realized I often really misunderstand grace.

Many of us misinterpret grace, because grace is an ecosystem.  

Let’s Become Disappearing Leaders

A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.

I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.

When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even 0166-St.-Marks-Episcopal-Cathedral-Organ-Minneapolis-MN-r1tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.

They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.

The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.

Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.

What’s Your Legacy?

Babysitting two grandsons Tuesday morning, I felt discouraged. Not with them; they were great. Not even with changing their diapers—although I’m a rank diaper amateur. I was discouraged because of a dissatisfaction with how my time was being spent.

I left the business world because God led me to something new. Now I sense a God-given, heart-gripping, compelling to write, to offer new perspectives on how our beliefs drive us.

So a few months ago I decided to spend more time writing. And how have I done? Rusty TypewriterThe short answer is, “Badly.” So is the long answer. Instead of writing more, I’ve written quite a bit less.

And I feel sort of useless. Hmmm, not useless; I feel wasted (no, not that kind of wasted), like I’m squandering my time, letting it be filled with activities while the mission that drives my heart lies abandoned.

Interruptions intervened, friends had urgent needs, I preached sermons and spoke at retreats, storms dumped snow, taxes were complicated, and diapers stunk. My writing was rusting.

So I re-visited my priorities to sort out how my life can make a difference. Then I read,

[Our] battle is not against sin, or circumstances, but against being so absorbed in our service to Jesus Christ that we are not ready to face Jesus Himself (Oswald Chambers).

I’ve been more interested in my ministry to God than in God himself.

What If We Can’t Forgive Ourselves?

I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage; he had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison.

Prison bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to thePrison victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he feels God forgives him too.

His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.

He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he just can’t forgive himself.

He now feels doubly guilty; guilt at what he did, and guilty that he can’t forgive himself.

The First Time I Ever Heard God’s Voice

I was ten years old the first time I ever heard God speak to me personally. The new school year had just begun, and a new fad spread among my classmates, cussing.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home. At church, Sunday school teachers taught the Ten Commandments. They were vague about adultery so I wasn’t too concerned. They weren’t clear about coveting either, so I felt kind of safe.

They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive, “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain;” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And that meant, “Don’t cuss.”

Cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.Shock

One day, while playing schoolyard tag, I tagged my girlfriend Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a horrific shock as though hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch and I can exactly picture the playground corner where Diane cussed.

Looking back it seems silly that a cuss could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to throw down a lightning bolt and burn her to an ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.

But not quite. I leaped backwards in case the bolt went wide.

I’m Not Okay—Neither Are You…And That’s Okay

Thomas Jefferson was a man of his time. His age of reason denied the possibility of miracles. So he took his old Bible and an old pair of scissors, and he cut out any verse with a hint of the supernatural.

Modern Christians do the same thing, only ours is the Jefferson-Bibleage of therapy (we like miracles). We rescue the Bible, highlighting anything that makes us feel good, and ruthlessly amputating every verse about sin (except for the sin of feeling bad about ourselves).

We adopt the book, I’m Okay—You’re Okay, baptize it, ordain it, and put it in the pulpit. Our new preacher skips any verse that questions our okay-ness, like:

  • If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children…
  • For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside you are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness
  • You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?

We are modern day Jeffersonians, cutting, twisting, and distorting the Bible, forcing it to say only what we want to hear. And we wonder why the church is a mess.

The truth is: I’m not okay, and neither are you.        

The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

[Click here for an audio version of this post: The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness.]

Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). It was almost prophetic.

Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.

Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.

On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and sveit0499sSt. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.

My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!

The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.

Our first two days in Rome were hell.