Failing at grace. . .

    legalism |ˈlēgəˌlizəm|
    noun

  • excessive adherence to law or formula.
  • dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.

I hate rules.

Unfortunately, I’ve lived my entire life under a strict system of rules and regulations designed to govern every little part of my life. So, I’m used to rules. And there’s a part of me that refuses to live without them. Here’s a perfect example: my rules about dating. It should come as no surprise then that I’ve had my rules challenged time and time again.

And I’ve found myself forced to either break my own rules or eliminate them entirely.

Why?

Because I’ve often found that by creating rules for myself, I’m developing a system to counteract the very thing that I claim to believe in: grace. Grace is something I never give myself. I’m my own harshest critic, and I set for myself an unattainable standard.

I may never discover why I do this to myself, especially knowing what I know about God and how he relates to me. But I can fairly easily trace its roots.

I spent seventeen years of my life in a sect of Christianity that valued rules and regulations above the grace that God makes so readily available to us. Sure, they spoke and taught of grace, but every action revealed a legalistic and pharasaical heart.

I may claim to have broken free from those chains, but the evidence of my life says otherwise. I may be able to extend grace to others, but how long will that last if I’m so unwilling to offer it to myself?

Dating. . .

Yeah, I’m bringing it up. What can I say? I’m a romantic.

As a single guy, it’s something that’s on my mind quite a bit. But as a guy in full-time ministry, it’s something I try to avoid doing too much. I mean, I’ve certainly gone on my fair share of dates in the past, not to mention a fairly long and serious relationship that God decided to put an end to. But I’m slowly learning that, while dating isn’t off-limits to me, it’s unwise to do so prolifically.

I’m sort of just rummaging through some of my thoughts here, and I doubt I’ll have anything terribly insightful, meaningful, or even coherent to say. I’m mostly just journaling and posing some questions that I hope those of you who are single and following Jesus will take into consideration or perhaps even answer.

coupleWe’ve all heard the clichéd statement, “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.” For a follower of Jesus, that sea is considerably smaller. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but our standards should be higher than others around us. For starters, if you’re truly seeking to obey Christ, you’re not going to date someone who doesn’t, at the very least, believe Jesus to be Messiah, Savior, and King over all.

But if you’re reading this blog, odds are that you’re following Jesus and want to mirror him in your decision-making, particularly in this area of life. So you’re probably not looking for someone who is a nominal Christian, but instead you’re looking for someone who is actively following and obeying him. The sea gets even smaller still.

Allow me to pause here on my “sea” analogy and reflect on something that takes place in Christianity that kinda bothers me. There’s an awful lot of pressure on dating. Why? Why can’t we just go out for a movie/dinner/coffee with someone of the opposite sex? Why is there such a stigma surrounding it?

coffee-dateWhy does it feel like the pressures of marriage surround our attempts at going on dates? Yes, it’s true that every girl I go out with is a potential wife, but dwelling on that thought is only ruining the good time that we could be having.

I don’t know how true this is in your life, but I have a tendency to put an inordinate amount of pressure on a first date. Yes, I want to make a good impression, but seriously, it’s a first date. I really should just be having fun, enjoying her company, and taking it one step at a time.

Anyway, back to the fish in the sea. I’ve established that the sea is small for Christians, smaller still for obedient Christians (which, shouldn’t we all be?), and now for me. Because this blog is about me anyway, right? ☺

I had a friend who was in full-time ministry who began dating a pretty awesome girl. She loved Jesus and was certainly committed to growing closer to him. She was an active part of the church community, and while they were dating, she was quite supportive of my friend. (I’m going to call them Stan and Brita from now on.)

This is far more nuanced a story than how I’m recounting it, but for the sake of my post, I’m going to stick with relevant portions of the story.

Stan and Brita got engaged, and over the course of their engagement, it became pretty clear that in order for their marriage to work, Stan had to leave the ministry. It wasn’t because Brita was the wrong girl or anything, and there were other reasons for Stan’s departure besides the upcoming marriage. The couple is still actively engaged in their church, even volunteering in the ministry that Stan once shepherded. But he left full-time ministry to marry Brita.

I guess the point I’m making is this: there appears to be a unique kind of girl that can be in a relationship with a guy who is in full-time ministry. I could be wrong here, but a girl who can’t handle the rigors of her significant other’s ministry—which will undoubtedly put a lot of strain on their relationship given the necessary stressors of his job—probably shouldn’t be in a relationship with someone who is in full-time ministry.

Granted, biblically, the relationship a guy has with his wife should come before all other responsibilities. And so, given the charge to properly “love your wife,” a guy should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of his wife. But by the same token, the life of someone in full-time ministry looks very different from someone who’s job stays at the office. Even someone whose work comes home from time to time.

I suppose that really narrows it down for me, doesn’t it? Or, in keeping with my analogy, shallows it out.

Again, I could be way off base here. Because what’s to say that a woman can’t learn to adapt to her husband’s lifestyle?

Another thought, and this one is again pretty specific to me. I have a rule for myself where I’ve decided that I won’t date anyone on my team. Period. I have another rule where I won’t date anyone that I’m ministering alongside, regardless of whether she’s on my team. I’m considering extending that rule to the congregation at large. I can’t think of any healthy scenario in which I started dating someone who attends the church where I lead a ministry.

I like my rule, and it helps keep me safe and above reproach. But it’s been challenged even by the story I mentioned above. Brita was one of Stan’s volunteers. It worked for them.

(I also have a rule about not dating someone I’ve met online, but that rule is in place for a whole different set of reasons.)

Practically speaking, dating someone you serve with seems a little unhealthy and just a bit dangerous. And I wouldn’t use Stan and Brita’s story as a model for normative dating scenarios. At my college, you weren’t allowed to date anyone you were serving in a ministry together with. It’s a bit extreme, but I think I understand the heart behind it. You’re there to complete a task in serving Jesus through blessing your community. It’s unwise to throw a dating relationship into that mix.

For me, everything that I’ve mentioned in this post really limits my dating options. Which, as I type out this sentence, I’m discovering is actually a very beneficial thing for me. My life, vocation, and career are all completely devoted to serving Christ in overt ways. I really shouldn’t be muddying that up by dating within my ministry environment. And limited dating options helps to keep me focused on what I’m supposed to be doing: serving Christ full-time.

So there’s my thought vomit on the topic of dating. Like I said, this isn’t a post where I wanted to share any valuable insights or coherently discuss a topic. I just wanted to put my thoughts out in the open and see what you think.

Sin. . .

As a guy, I find the battle with sexual sin to be a gripping and tiring one. Day after day I’m exhausted by my own propensity for lust, my own fleshly desire to sleep with every attractive girl I see. It’s tiring. It’s wearisome. It’s exhausting.

But I wonder if the reason I’m so worn out by this battle is that I’m fighting for all the wrong reasons? I’m fighting because I want to be victorious in this area of my life. I’m fighting because if I give up, I could lose my job. I’m fighting because giving up could destroy my relationship with my future wife.

But what if I stopped fighting for all these reasons? They’re noble, but are they all really worth it?

King David wrote in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

Fighting isn’t easy. Fighting against something with nothing compelling to fight for is even harder. But when I remind myself that my God loves me, that he saves me, that he destroyed death for me, that all this “demands my soul, my life, my all,” then I cannot but continue to fight, because the weight of the battle is lifted from my heart, replaced by the depth of his mercy.

Gaining victory over sin in our lives requires constant reminders of the power of the Gospel. It requires resting in the shadow of Christ’s cross.

I’m back. . .

It’s been more than half a year since last I posted. Much has happened since then. Emergence has launched both in our perpetual location and as an organization separate from Jacksonvile Chapel. The ministry God has entrusted to me has grown and much is changing at a whirlwind pace.

Also, I’ve experienced some loss recently.

It hasn’t been an easy road, to be certain, but it’s been necessary. As I’ve worked through this trial I’m sensing God’s grace in an immense way. God is ruining me. He’s breaking me of my pride, arrogance, and idolatry.

And as painful as it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When we lose something or someone, a hole forms in our heart. That hole can’t be filled with whatever was there to begin with. It can’t even be filled with a newer, better version of what was there. It must be filled with our Savior.

And that’s what God is teaching me. As he begins to piece together my broken heart, he’s also breaking the stubbornness that I cling to. He’s breaking down the idols that have crept in without my noticing.

And soon, sooner than I may expect and not as soon as I would like (but no sooner than God intends), I will be at full strength again. And I will recall this time in my life as God’s way of launching me to greater heights with him than I would have imagined before.

But for now I’ll grieve. I’ll rest in the arms of my Father and let my Savior heal these wounds.

I’m leaving Restored to Grace. . .

Not for good, but definitely for a while.

I think God is trying to teach me something—discernment and wisdom. Many, if not all, of my posts were impulsive and reactionary. Which, in itself, isn’t bad. But here’s where it all goes south. Restored to Grace was a public blog. One that I was using as a journal. Those are my thoughts. They’re to be wrestled with in my mind with no one but myself and God (and one or two very trusted advisors).

My life is changing at breakneck speed. I’m no longer a kid just stumbling along trying to figure things out. While I can’t say that I’ve got everything all put together (because, as we all know, none of us do. . . and thank God for that; it’s nice to know that he’s writing our story, and we aren’t), I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I know what I want from life and who I want to be. And now I’m in a position of leadership. And not the kind of leadership I had at my last job where I was just telling people to alphabetize the items on the shelves. I’m a spiritual leader.

And while something inside me shies away at the thought, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s God’s calling on my life.

And because of this calling, I can no longer vomit my initial thoughts and struggles into the public forum. I have to act differently from how I’ve previously acted. Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth (who, incidentally, had some seriously skewed ideas about the spiritual and physical “realms,” not unlike ourselves in many ways) —

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”

This verse has been weighing heavily on my mind these last several days. I know what I have to do. First, I have to be very careful about what I allow to define me. While I’m not the sum of my blog posts, status updates, and tweets, to the people who know me primarily through those avenues I am. And I have no way of changing their views of me. My friend-pastor-boss likes to say, “We are our own PR firm.” That statement couldn’t be more true. And the task of maintaining our public image is made especially difficult in today’s world with Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere.

I’m not talking about not being authentic. I’m talking about being intentional.

Second, I have to be careful to not react to whatever situations or ideas may come my way. My old mentor (and former friend-pastor-boss) used to exhort me day after day to be careful about my reactions to fundamentalism. Yes, there have been personal hurts. Yes, their approach to the Gospel is quite skewed. But by constantly reacting and trying to “prove that I’m different,” I continue to give them control over my life.

Someone told me recently that in reacting, we give in to our sinfulness. While emotions are a gift from God—allowing us to experience joy, love, and even sadness, emotional highs and lows are Satan’s way of turning our emotions against us. Emotions should never govern our actions, but instead should give power to our rational thought which in turn controls our actions.

Think about it this way (the following analogy is my own, though possibly not originally, as the aforementioned acquaintance didn’t give this to me; I’m saying this so you know I’m not putting words into her mouth) — Our actions and decisions are like a car. They take us from point A to point B. Our carefully reasoned thoughts act as the steering system (wheels, rack, pinion gear, steering wheel, etc.) which controls the direction of the car. Our emotions act as the engine, setting our actions into motion. Without emotions, we don’t really take action. But actions driven by emotions alone are as dangerous as a car without a steering system.

Another of my former pastors once reminded me, after one of my errors in judgment came to light, of this principle from Proverbs 19—that although wisdom without zeal is dead, zeal without wisdom is deadly.

I’m guilty of that. I have for too long allowed the car of my actions and decisions to be governed by the engine of my emotions without the control of my reasoning. Recently a circumstance came into my life that vividly highlighted this. Thankfully it was only a fender-bender that affected an interpersonal relationship that I hadn’t yet invested much time or effort into. I’m glad God didn’t allow this to progress to the point of irreparable damage to the work he’s allowing me to do.

This lack of self-control has led me to take dogmatic stances on grey-area issues. It has caused me to make quick-snap decisions that ended in my hurting people I care about. It also turned me into a democrat.

Paul wrote about this in his second recorded letter to his protégé Timothy.

“God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Power, love, and self-control are all gifts from God. I pray these words come to describe me in time. For now, I’m progressing there. “Under construction,” if you will.

But I want to thank you all. Thanks for reading Restored to Grace these past three years. It’s been an interesting journey, and one thing I hope I’ve learned through it all is this: God is not giving up on me.

Or on you. Phil. 1.6.

Daddy. . .

There have been very few moments that, in the middle of a total funk, I’ve pressed in so strongly to my Father.

This is one of those moments.

I feel like a little child, helpless and lost, calling out to his dad. Hoping to hear something. Waiting for his father’s voice.

And just as all hope seems lost, Daddy’s arms scoop the little child up. All is right in the world.

Because Daddy’s here. His arms will hold you.

And he’ll never let go.

The theology in romance. . .

I’ve become convinced that our interactions with God are best pictured in romance. While no analogy captures every aspect of our relationship with God (think parent-child picture), I can’t help but notice the romance in God’s attempt to reach us.

Let me tell you a story. Like many stories, this one has a beginning. It began with a man whose love betrayed him. She turned her back on him and decided to prostitute herself. She settled for a broken, disgusting substitute for love instead of the true love of her lover.

The man couldn’t bear the thought of his love selling herself, so he devised a plan to win her back. He disguised himself and entered the brothel.

While disguised he began trying to win his love’s affection again. But she didn’t recognize him. She mistook him for someone crazy, and in a terrible turn of events, she murdered him.

Her own lover. Murdered.

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what we do time and time again. Yet he still calls out to us.

“Do you remember me? I love you. Come back to me.”

And everyday we make choices that nail him to the cross again. We can’t recognize our Lover.

But every so often someone notices. Someone looks at this life and says, “This is not right.” He looks around himself and begins to notice a shadow forming. He looks up and sees a cross.

Dark. Cruel. Menacing.

And through the darkness he hears a voice whispering to him. You were supposed to die there. You were sentenced to that death. But someone decided to rescue you. Someone decided you were worth it. And he went there instead.

He went there instead.

What kind of love is this? A love that would make that kind of trade?

If my love spurned me, betrayed me, and walked away from me, selling herself to a disgusting imitation of love. . . could I take her place in the face of her execution?

Of my own accord, no. But because I know I’ve received that kind of love, I would be unable to do otherwise. I’d be compelled to love like my Lover has loved me.

But it’s only because of that love.

In the spirit of authenticity (pt. 6). . .

Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.
Read part 3 here.
Read part 4 here.
Read part 5 here.

But my story didn’t end there. Because God’s story is much bigger than that. His ideas for me move far beyond what I could possibly imagine.

I can’t even begin to describe the kinds of changes God was working into my life during my first year attending Liquid Church. It was time for me to learn about his grace. I had no idea what that meant.

After I’d been attending for a few months, Tim preached a sermon series called iGod that had me questioning everything I believed about God. It wasn’t necessarily new information, but it was a new perspective—a paradigm shift, if you will.

I had somehow (during my seventeen years in fundamentalism) developed a lifestyle that belied my belief that God is personified in love. I was living like I believed God was some cosmic scorekeeper who was keeping track of everything I did, ready to put my poor score on display.

But this guy was talking about a God who really cares. Was I serving a scorekeeping God? Or was I serving a God who is Love?

I wanted to believe this, but it would be a while before I could truly accept that truth.

Six months pass, and I decided to join the Liquid Kids team. Little did I know what kind of journey God had in store for me then. But that was the beginning of something beautiful. And scary.

And even quite painful.

* * *

I think now would be a good time to tell you where I got the name for this blog (y’know, after nearly three years of writing here). My story has been one of searching for the “meaning” of grace. I’ve been trying to capture this concept and wrap my mind it for so many years, but until March 2008 (when I started this blog), I had no tangible understanding of it.

Before I started attending Liquid, I was fully invested at a church that had a vice grip on my family. Much like Bob Jones University, this church dictated the way you were to live your life, forcing you into their mold of 1950s Christianity. And if you failed to do so, they’d call your faith into question.

After being part of a “family” for seventeen years, the idea of leaving doesn’t really make sense. But after certain events took place, after certain words were exchanged (and some that should’ve been exchanged were kept silent), we had to get out. We had to get to a safe place.

But God wasn’t about to let us flounder. I’d started attending Liquid with my childhood best friend during the summer of 2007 after I’d returned to New Jersey from South Carolina. My family left our former church in November of that year, and my brother started attending Liquid a month later. My parents were a little more cautious and, after searching for a church home for several months, started attending Liquid in April 2008.

That’s where I found grace.

In his first letter, Peter (one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends) wrote these words:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

That’s what this blog is about.

That’s what my story is. It’s a constant cycle of suffering, grace, and restoration. There’s much more to this story than I’ve told in these six posts, but stick around. I may tell it to you one day.

And seriously, thanks for reading.

In the spirit of authenticity (pt. 5). . .

Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.
Read part 3 here.
Read part 4 here.

I’m not exactly proud of the attitude I developed in the years following my graduation from Bob Jones University. But I understand that my “rebellion” has helped me to understand grace much better.

I acted out in a lot of the same ways that most people would act out in high school. Lots of drinking, smoking any substance that could be smoked (legally or otherwise), feeding my addiction to pornography, etc.

But all of that came about because of a question I was asking myself: does God really even care?

My biggest fear was that someone would find out about my brokenness. That someone would see what I was doing and call me out on it. So I hid it behind a polished exterior.

The problem with this is that there’s no healing possible when you hide. Thankfully, God had placed someone in my life who introduced me to an environment where healing was possible. A place where I didn’t have to hide who I was because I knew I wouldn’t be judged for how I was living.

I would be accepted, loved, and cared for. And with love comes the natural impetus to seek change.

Slowly stuff started to change. Life started to look different for me.

And my big question was answered. God really does care.