Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Grace”

A fraudulent vocation

I recently attended a pastors retreat where the speaker stated, “Ours is a fraudulent vocation.”

That was eye-popping statement. If the speaker didn’t have my attention before, he certainly had me now.

He went on to explain that our fraudulent vocation is rooted in the fact that vocational ministry is always in crisis. We constantly feel the friction of lack of resources, not enough dependable leaders, and people who struggle with their commitments.

Going deeper, our vocational crisis stems from our faith being based on crises. This is true in a general sense. Christ came to save sinners. That’s crisis enough.

But a deeper level, we pastors know our personal faith is a faith of crises. We know our own sin (hopefully we are honest about that). We know our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. We know our inadequacies when it comes to leadership.

I spent substantial portions of my first pastorate fearing people would eventually figure out I was a fraud–that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I wasn’t trying to deceive people by covering up some heinous sin. Rather I was keenly aware I didn’t know how to fix the problems and challenges presented to me in pastoral ministry.

  • I had no magical answers that would take away the pain of a couple’s deteriorating marriage.
  • I didn’t have any  proven formulas to give parents dealing with rebellious kids.
  • As much as I prayed, I never found effective strategies to reach un-churched people in our community, most of whom had zero interest in our catchy vision statement or ministry slogan.
  • While counseling and encouraging parishioners to live victorious Christian lives, I found I struggled with a lot of the same temptations and challenges as they. I experienced relapses  my thought-life, struggled with basing my sense of worth by my bank account, and had teenage children who bucked my authority and slept through church.

The reality of the fraudulent vocation still nips at my heels. My anxiety surrounding my inadequacy spikes at times.

I am learning to accept that this is the norm, both of ministry vocation and the Christian life in general. Author Jamie Blaine observes, “What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes. We’re all struggling and faking it somewhere along the way, praying no one finds out how messed up we truly are.”

Furthermore, this is a tenet of New Testament faith. Jesus was clear that he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. Paul wasn’t shy in acknowledging that he was chief among sinners. It’s in our weakness that God’s grace and power are at their strongest.

I wonder how much I believe this.

I catch myself measuring my value, worth and meritocracy on how well I behave–how good of a job I do in getting my act together. I grade my pastoral legitimacy on how creatively hip my messages are and how seamless my organizational skills appear.

I find myself resisting my need to rely on grace. While Paul’s words, “I will boast about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” inspire me, as does Henri Nouwen’s phrase “wounded healer,” actually being weak and wounded chafes my ego.

Perhaps that’s the real fraud of how we do our Christian life in general, and ministry in particular.

Stepping back in

After a 7 year hiatus, I’ve stepped back into the role of senior pastor. My wife and I planted a church in 1988, and I pastored it for 20 years. Like all church plants and pastoral tenures, we experienced ups and downs, setbacks and celebrations.

We weathered the strains of that work, and with much prayer and thought I stepped out of that pastorate to pursue other ministry expressions.

The next several years witnessed unfulfilled dreams, failures and a general crisis of faith. I tasted plenty of confusion, shame, self-doubt and God-doubt.

But I also experienced loads of grace.

Interesting how the two often coincide.

Over the last year-and-a-half, a growing conviction began developing in my heart of hearts. I’m wired for pastoral work. I’ve always known it, but for a variety of reasons struggled to own it.

With a host of self-doubts still whispering in the far corners of my soul, I decided to lean into faith and own my calling. Graciously, I was extended the call to pastor the church my family has been involved in throughout my journey of the last seven years.

Yesterday was my first day back in the saddle of preaching/teaching on a regular basis.

On the way to church, my wife asked me how I was doing.

“I’m nervous.”

“Why?” she asked.

I paused, then decided to name my anxiety.

“I hope they like me.”

I’m sure that, somewhere, behind that anxiety is the anxiety of having the audacity to trust the grace of God.

I’m determined to do so.

I’m stepping back in.

The “Whosoever” Gospel

Probably the most familiar verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Christians crow about how this verse contains the entire message of the Gospel in one succinct statement.

Perhaps its real fame, though, has come through the unlikely source of televised sports. Who hasn’t seen the “3:16” sign as extra points sail through goalposts, free throws swish through nets and batters take a third strike?

One of the key words in the verse is “whosoever.” It seems to be a pretty inclusive term.

Over the years, however, I recognize my propensity to read “whosoever” as meaning me and those I like.

We can only read John 3:16, well by reading the the rest of the story that it’s placed in. It’s part of the commentary that John adds to a conversation that Jesus has been having with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, we’re told, is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council (3:1). The religious system that framed Nicodemus’ understanding of acceptability and inclusion in God’s kingdom focused on strict adherence to the Law of Moses and ceremonial purity.

Much of the traditions and rituals focused on Temple worship.

Richard Rohr notes that in this system of Temple worship, the acceptance and availability of God were clearly defined by the very design of the Temple.

At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter, and he only once a year.

Next was the court of the priests and Levites. This space was reserved for the religious elite.

Outside this court was the court of the circumcised Jews. It’s pretty obvious who had access here and who didn’t.

Then came the outer court where Jewish women were allowed. However, because of purity laws surrounding menstruation, birthing and ritual purity, they rarely had access.

Outside this court was a sign warning non-Jews not to enter or be punished by death. (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation)

This paradigm was about as opposite of “whosoever” as we can get.

Jesus had been preaching his “whosoever” message all along. He broke through the walls of exclusion by eating with tax collectors, touching lepers, interacting with women, laying hands on dead people, and intermingling with foreigners, including Gentiles and Roman soldiers.

Jesus’ love and acceptance had no boundaries. It was a value he was willing to die for.

I tend to create my own set of rules to determine which circle I belong in. I have my own purity laws I use to my acceptability to God. “The better i perform my duties and control my sinful impulses, the closer to the inner circle I get.”

I also have my circles I place others in. I assume I get to determine their level of belonging.

Like Nicodemus, I need to hear the gospel of “whosoever.”

And like Nicodemus, I will wrestle with its implications.

The Ninety-nine

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who has 100 sheep. Somehow one gets lost, and the farmer is faced with a dilemma.

What does he do?

The obvious answer, it seems, is to leave the 99 and search the land over until the stray is found.

It seems like shady math to me, but I’m not telling the story.

That lost sheep is pretty darn lucky.

But I wonder about the 99. What keeps them in the fold? How is it that they don’t wander?

Jesus never addresses this. It’s obviously not the point of his story. It’s all about finding the lost sheep.

I’ve always assumed that the 99 had played their cards right. They must have had their act together. It’s to their credit that they hadn’t strayed.

But is it?

Some of us stay in the fold more out of fear than virtue. We aren’t convinced that if we venture out of the safety zones of life that there’s enough love in the Father’s heart to come find us if we happen to get lost.

Fear becomes the fence that pens us in.

There’s something to say for those who dare to risk, to live life fully.

Being secure in the Father’s love and grace provides us the courage to fully express ourselves. We can leave the confines of the familiar and predictable and discover life beyond.

It’s risky.

It’s dangerous.

Sometimes we get lost.

We’ll need a shepherd to search and find us.

Jesus is clear on this point. He will do just that.

And it’s the lost sheep who gets the party.

Wanting (Part 1)

I’ve written previously about the dynamic of giving voice to our wants (see “What do you want?” on November 29, 2012).

Reading through Mark recently, I noticed that in the second half of chapter 10, there are two occasions where Jesus asks people the powerful question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vv. 36, 51).

When the author repeats a statement and places them back-to-back in the narrative, we should take notice.

Mark is up to something significant.

The occasions giving rise to the question are different. In the first story, Jesus responds to a favor that James and John ask of him.

In the second, Jesus directs the question to Bartimaeus, who happens to be blind. He’s been creating a commotion in hopes of attracting Jesus’ attention. His efforts pay big dividends. (I’ll discuss this event in a future blog entry.)

Apparently Jesus is interested in what we want and insists we give them a voice.

“What do you want Jesus to do for you?” is a great question to ask ourselves from time to time. It’s also a great question to ask those we lead and serve.

How we answer says a lot about us. What we don’t say may reveal even more.

In the first story, Jesus elicits the disciples’ true desires. It brings to the surface what they may otherwise would never admit.

To their credit, the disciples answer honestly. They don’t censure. They don’t cloak their response with spiritual jargon to make their desires more palatable.

“We want top billing. We want in front of the line. We want power, status and position. Furthermore, we want to beat the others to the draw and be the first to ask.”

I’m pretty sure I would have dressed up my answer. I have enough church experience to know how to make selfish, prideful demands sound more spiritually acceptable. I know how to bury my desires. I know how to lie.

Being involved in church and ministry has contributed to my propensity to cover my true desires and motives.

A good practice is to read this passage and put ourselves in James and John’s place. When Jesus asks us what we want him to do for us, answer with the first thing that pops in our mind–what comes spontaneously, immediately before we have a chance to filter.

If we can’t pull that off, then identify what we choked down. What didn’t we say but wanted to?

In my more honest moments I’d say things like:

  • I want lots of money.
  • I want a big church where everyone cheers when I speak.
  • I want somebody with clout to notice me and give me my big break.
  • I want the sins of my past to disappear without any consequences.
  • I want my life to be easy.

Jesus allows James and John to shoot straight. He invites us to follow suit.

Our wants tell a story. Acknowledging them gives Jesus access to our hearts. Like James and John, voicing our wants opens the door to repentance and transformation.

When I allow Jesus access to my desires, when I sit with him with my wants on the table, I come to realize that what I really want is:

  • I want to know I’m significant
  • I want this season of life to count and have impact.
  • I want to feel secure.
  • I want grace to free me of my shame.

I also begin to repent. What I initially wanted are substitutes for what I really need.

They are my demands to have life my way, on my terms.

They are substitutes for Jesus.

Wasting grace

God’s grace–what are we to do with it?

Grace may be more difficult to handle than it seems at first look.

Paul makes an interesting statement in 1 Corinthians 15:10:

“But God’s grace has made me what I am, and his grace to me was not wasted. I worked harder than all the other apostles. (But it was not I really, it was God’s grace that was with me.”

Paul mentions this in the middle of his discussion of the resurrection. He chronicles the occasions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to people. Paul lists Peter, the twelve as a group, then 500 believers, James, and then all the apostles again.

Lastly, Jesus appears to Paul. It’s as if he was born out of time, he says. He doesn’t consider himself worthy to be counted among the other apostles. This is due to Paul’s persecution of the church.

Paul sees his behavior prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus as a disqualification. Paul has no business being counted among the faithful, much less be considered an apostle.

Thankfully, God disagrees. God is undeterred in forgiving Paul. God readily includes him in the family of the faith. He generously invests calling and gifts, opening up a compelling future for Paul’s life.


What to do with it?

Paul doesn’t take it lightly.

He knows the gravity of his past. He’d been responsible for much suffering. People went to jail, experienced deprivation, and were no doubt tortured, on account of his misplaced zeal. Families were disrupted. Children were traumatized by the loss of parents. No doubt some of Paul’s victims died unjust deaths.

He could allow the shame of persecuting the church to continue to disqualify him.

Instead, he exercises the courage and faith to believe he’s been fully forgiven. With forgiveness comes the freedom to move forward.

Paul seizes the privilege. He throws himself wholeheartedly to the task.

Paul recognizes God’s grace has made him who he is, and he;s determined to not to let it be in vain. He jumps all in, faithfully applying himself to the task set before him. He partners with God in fulfilling his assignment.

This is no easy task Paul pulls off. The tendency is to keep looking back, to justify why our past should disqualify us.

We can be very loyal to our shame.

It’s audacious to embrace grace and dare believe we have permission to have a future.

To do anything less is to discount the grace of God.

It’s wasteful.

It allows shame to win out.

And grace to be in vain.

Reading with different eyes

A recent reading Luke’s combined stories of Jairus and the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 8:40ff), prompted me to ask God to read them with new eyes.

In the past I read stories like this assuming there were only a few options:

  • Read them as literal accounts (I still believe the miracles happened), which left me wishing miracles like this would happen for me.
  • Read them with the expectation (read pressure) to manufacture enough faith, or the right kind of faith, that would produce similar miracles. This led to a couple of outcomes: 1) wishful thinking that surely if I keep trying I could figure out the formula to make such miracles happen; and 2) frustration and discouragement because I could never pull it off.
  • Read them in from a dispensational framework. Miracles happened only in Jesus’ time because God treated people then differently, more specially, than He does today. Plus, they needed such miracles because theirs was a simpler, more gullible time. Now that we are so much more enlightened, we don’t need miracles. We have the Bible, after all.
  • Read them as fairy tales. Legends of miracles are helpful for little kids and those immature in their faith. But such miracles didn’t and don’t really happen.

None of these are particularly satisfying.

This time I found myself wondering what it would be like to read these stories from a first century, middle-eastern mindset? After all, it was such a perspective they were originally told and written. I still don’t know what that would be like.

But a new thought did occur to me. What if I read the stories from a shame perspective?

This seems consistent with their context. The Jewish world was one of hierarchies. People were put in categories and their qualification to merit God’s favor was ranked in order of most deserving to least. Those on the lower end were shamed by those in the upper level.

Both Jairus and the woman were facing their own form of shame that made approaching Jesus a monumental task of faith and courage.

I relate to that perspective. It takes the impact of the story to a deeper level than the extraordinary miracles that both experienced.

I find myself particularly relating to Jairus.

His stretch consists of facing the shame of admitting his need. He’s a respected religious leader with influence. Yet he faces a need that his position and reputation cannot solve. His knees buckle.

If he wants help and healing, his only recourse is to humble himself and go to Jesus.

The same Jesus that no doubt has been criticized and vilified in his synagogue.

He swallows his pride and confronts his sense of being “right” and goes to Jesus. He names and owns his need, his weakness.

Been there and done that.

I know what it’s like to have position. I know what it’s like to believe I’m above the problems others have. I know what it’s like being convinced I’m right.

I know the crushing reality of failure. Of facing brokenness. Of experiencing pain that brings me to my knees.

I know the fear of naming and owning. The power of shame in those moments can be lethal.

Thankfully, I’ve also discovered Jesus doesn’t play the shame game.

Jesus is more than happy to accept Jairus and respond to his need . He’s more than happy to take me in as well.

The story doesn’t end there. The woman with the hemorrhage interrupts the action. She has her own shame battle, but that’s a story for another time.

Jairus’ courage seems to be slapped in the face. Just when it appears all is going well and hopes are raised that his daughter will be spared, the woman butts in line and steals Jesus’ attention and power.

I hate to admit it, but I project my own thoughts and feelings into Jairus’ experience at this point.

I’ve had those times when I’ve been jealous and angry that others seem to get immediate answers and blessings from God. I’ve gone through the pain and angst of having my knees buckle, cry out to God, face my shame, name my failures and flaws, receive initial assurance of grace, have my hopes raised and then . . .


And wait.

I expect circumstance to change quickly. I assume the pain and discomfort to ease immediately.

But they don’t.

Sometimes, nothing seems to change at all.

While I wait, others seem to get immediate answers. New job opportunities appear out of nowhere. They get promotions they didn’t ask for. Somehow they figure out how to plan their future and success seems to follow. They have clarity. They reinvent. They get what they want.

And I wait.

I imagine Jairus doubting. At some level, it doesn’t seem fair. Why did this woman have to show up at this time and interfere? Why does she get preferential treatment? Why are her needs met immediately?

In my better moments, I’m still conscious that I have much to be thankful for. But that doesn’t always keep these thoughts from coming. It doesn’t keep me from being jealous or angry. I doubt God’s fairness and goodness.

Back to Jairus, I find myself hearing Jesus tell me to not fear but keep trusting (v. 50).

What does this mean for him?

For me?

I don’t believe that Jairus immediately turns a switch that changes his thoughts and feelings and doubts and pain. I don’t believe he’s suddenly convinced, confident and elated.

Interestingly, Jairus doesn’t say a word. He just follows Jesus back to his home and his now dead daughter. My hunch is that while walking home, following Jesus, he’s filled with grief, his mind swirling with anguish, confusion and pain.

But, still he follows Jesus.

That’s where I find myself at times. Even when it seems others have it figured out and are getting more immediate and clear answers from God, I still hang in there with Jesus.

Answers come in increments. Hope is revived a little at a time. Just when I’m ready to throw in the towel, a breakthrough, however small, surprises me. I am encouraged. So I keep following.

That’s how I understand faith.

Reading the gospel story in this light makes sense. I find connection and meaning.

Thought to ponder

Last night I had the privilege to be a part of a church service where Baxter Kruger and Paul Young tag-teamed in giving the message. Paul made a statement I thought appropriate for the “Good Enough” paradigm:

“The opposite of more is enough.”

So often we get caught in the endless wheel of “more.”

  • Do more.
  • Reach more people.
  • Get more offerings.
  • Pray more.
  • Read more.
  • Be more.

More is exhausting.

Grace allows us to relax.

To breathe.

To rest.

To be.

Grace is the beautiful message from God that we don’t have to be or do more.

We’re already enough.

We’re already accepted.

What we have is enough, for they are his gifts.

The Zaccheus principle

In previous posts I’ve discussed my current reading of the Gospels with an aim to become better acquainted with Jesus. I find this challenging, because I’ve been programmed to read the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) for information–Bible truths, principles, precepts, theology and life answers.

Truth be known, Bible information often hides Jesus.

In my quest to read with a different set of eyes, I came across the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19. Luke identifies three things about this man.

  • He collects taxes.
  • He is rich.
  • He is short.

All three are significant. They speak of the public shame Zaccheus experienced, particularly at the hands of the religious community.

The Jewish public deeply resented tax collectors. Taxation reminded them of Roman occupation and control–a constant reminder that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. To collect taxes for the hated Romans represented the ultimate betrayal.

Adding insult is the fact that Zaccheus is rich. He’s darn good at what he does–ripping people off. He does so for Rome’s benefit as well as his own. The only thing that chaps us more than someone taking advantage of us is when they seem to get wealthy doing it.

Finally, Luke takes note that Zaccheus is short. God has nothing against being short, but society tends to marginalize based on physical appearance. Tax collecting was so abhorrent in Jewish culture that town folk couldn’t find enough reasons to dislike, shun and marginalize those who stooped so low.

Any fabricated flaw justified their contempt. “He’s short? All the more proof that he’s scum!”

Enter Jesus.

As Jesus walks into Jericho, crowds begin to line the streets. There’s such commotion that it becomes difficult to get a view of Jesus as he makes his way through town.

Especially if you are short.

Not to be deterred, Zaccheus climbs a tree. We discover a fourth description of this man. He is a seeker of Jesus. Twice Luke tells us that Zaccheus is intent on “seeing Jesus.”

Perched on a branch, Zaccheus not only gets his desired view, but Jesus walks directly under the tree and invites himself over for the evening.

What is Jesus doing here?

If we’re not careful, we’ll immediately rush to theology and biblical principles.

  • Jesus is making a statement about prejudice and how we are to love the most despised and shunned people of our society.
  • Jesus is demonstrating inclusion.
  • Jesus is showing us that God operates on a different economy than we do and extends his grace to all, even the most undeserving.

All these are beautiful realities. But I think there’s something more basic and real going on here. If we simply settle for theology, we’ll miss Jesus.

Jesus genuinely likes Zaccheus and wants to hang out with him. This is the real point of the story.

I can’t see Jesus going into this with other motives. Jesus doesn’t spot Zaccheus in the tree and say to himself, “This would make a great teaching moment. I’ll blow everyone’s mind and go over to that guy and see if I can get him to invite me over for supper. That will drive home the point to these self-righteous religious leaders. Imagine the sermon illustrations this will make.”

Nor can I see Jesus saying to himself, “Hey, if I go over to that short guy in the tree, it will make a cool song for Sunday school kids. I can hear it now, ‘Zaccheus was a wee-little man, a wee-little man was he . . .'”

If these are Jesus’ motives, then he’s just using Zaccheus. He reduces Zaccheus to an object lesson.

Jesus is in the moment. He loves Zaccheus and naturally wants hang out with the guy. He can’t seem to help himself from taking the initiative and inviting himself over for the evening.

To add to the beauty of the story, Jesus no doubt knows all about Zaccheus’ background and lifestyle. But they don’t seem to matter a lick to Jesus.

Later, we hear Jesus laughing with delight, celebrating Zaccheus’ repentance and new-found faith. No one is more thrilled than Jesus to see salvation come to this ‘wee little man.” Zaccheus will no longer be known as a filthy rich tax collector.

Jesus becomes even more clear against the contrasting response of the respectable Jewish community. They’re indignant and incredulous. “How could Jesus stoop to such depths by hanging out with such a scum of a low-life? ”

They certainly don’t like Zaccheus. They don’t want anything to do with him. The only good purpose Zaccheus provides is sermon fodder for what sinners look like.

This leaves me questioning myself. Why do I extend myself to others? Why do I do this thing we call “ministry”?

  • Do I tell someone about Jesus because I genuinely care about them and like them, or because it will make a cool story to tell my Christian friends?
  • Do I give my money to Christian ministry because it’s a genuine expression of love for Jesus and others, or is it more about trying to live by biblical principles?
  • Are my acts of generosity and compassion calculated efforts aimed at setting good examples or satisfying my conscience, or are they authentic demonstrations of love?

Hopefully as I keep hanging out with Jesus in the Gospels, I’ll find myself relating with other like Jesus did with Zaccheus.

The audacity to stand up straight

I continue to be impressed with how audacious grace is.

In Luke 13:10ff, Jesus encounters a woman who’s been bent double for 18 long years. Jesus breaks all kinds of rules by initiating a conversation with her, touching her, and healing her of the affliction. She stands up straight and begins to worship God.

All this in the synagogue. And on the Sabbath day, to boot.

It just isn’t proper.

Jesus is duly reprimanded by the synagogue official. The official, after all, is responsible to ensure that rules and order are maintained.

  • Sex-roles.
  • Social propriety.
  • Religious rituals and regulations.
  • Tradition.
  • Respectability.

Either Jesus isn’t aware of such propriety, or doesn’t care. He has one concern–a woman stooped under a burden of infirmity. She’s carried the load long enough.

Compassion locks Jesus’ focus on her need. All the concerns the official thought so important fades into Jesus’ periphery.

Grace doesn’t care if her healing is proper. Isn’t concerned if it obeys the rules. Doesn’t listen to the religious arguments of why it isn’t the time or place. Doesn’t question if the woman deserves her affliction or merits her healing.

Grace restores and heals and liberates. Everyone and anyone is a candidate. Any time, any place. No prerequisites required.

What have we been carrying around that has us bent double? How long have we been under its load?

What rules, regulations and expectations tell us that we have to keep hauling it around?

What are the voices we fear will criticize us if we let it go?

Jesus has the audacity to release, forgive and heal now. He doesn’t demand we jump through hoops first.

His grace has one intent–to empower us to stand up straight and get on with a life that brings delight and glory to God.

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