Begin with Grace

This is part of a weekly series for the Downtown bulletin about our Wesleyan Heritage. I thought it went well with the overall theme of this blog so I included it here too. Have a great week!

I was reminded this week that we Methodists always begin with grace. It shows up in our theology and in our practices. We begin with God’s goodness and then work our way to humanity’s great need for salvation. We see ourselves not as sinners in the hands of an angry God but as sinners being sought by a gracious God. Jesus himself said that he came to save the lost and heal the sick.

Infant baptism and an open communion table are practical outcomes of beginning with God’s grace. It is not through our goodness but God’s that we are invited into the sacraments. Caring for one another through small groups, which we’ve learned about these past few weeks, is another way our theology becomes practical. Gods good gifts working through the hands and feet of others is one of the primary ways grace is imparted. 

If God begins with grace, how much more so should we. Who this week is God calling you to share grace with? Who needs your forgiveness or apology? Who might be encouraged by a visit or card? 

Begin with grace…only God knows what might be waiting for you as a result.

Through the Desert

The appointed pastoral staff recorded a podcast today about sanctification. Yes…you read correctly! It is the process by which God fills us with love through grace. The result is that we become more and more like Jesus in thought, word, action, and even desires. 

A part of the podcast we talked about how our journey with the means of grace has shaped us. Means of grace are anything that puts us in a place to receive grace which in turn fills us with love and grows us in the image of Christ. Things like Scripture reading, prayer, worship, small group experiences, and of course the sacraments of baptism and communion are but a few practices that we can participate in that God then uses to impart grace.

The conversation reminded me of my own experience with the means of grace both good and difficult. For you see, I spent a year in the wilderness. No, not an actual wilderness but a figurative one. This was a spiritual desert in which I could not pray or read Scripture. Every time I would sit down my mind would race and I would become so distracted that I simply had to stop. It was frustrating and defeating.

To make matters worse, the desert time came almost immediately after the Andover campus was birthed and things outwardly were going incredibly well. We, meaning about 50 other folks,  started a new worshiping community. People were coming and God was at work in visible ways. I still remember that first Sunday when people walked in with the postcards they received in the mail. Now, who responds to direct mail anymore!!! God was working for sure. It should have been the most exciting time of my pastoral life.

But…

I couldn’t pray. And I couldn’t read Scripture except for preparing a sermon and then it was hit or miss. Not good…did I mention that I was now preaching weekly and responsible for pastoring a group of people? Not good when the pastor can’t pray.

As the days turned into weeks I started to grow mildly anxious. I at first thought that this was just me being too preoccupied with the busyness of this new season. “It will get better” I kept telling myself. Weeks turned into months and I went from mildly anxious to downright dreading even sitting down for a time of devotion. My mind racing. My body twitching. My spirit defeated.

To make matters worse, my imposter syndrome started to kick in as I began to wonder how much longer I could hold on. Imagine, a pastor who can’t pray or read Scripture. How can you preach on Sunday when you haven’t prayed all week? Good question…and one I feared I would learn the hard way at any time.

I won’t burden you with all the rest of the downs and downs, but what I have come to realize is that I was experiencing a desert experience some have called dark night of the soul. It is a time when the presence of God recedes, or at least appears to, and you are left with just your faith, or lack thereof. It is as if God is asking, “Are you really interested in me or am I just a means to your personal idolic end?” To be more specific…God was asking if I was being a pastor for my glory or God’s? Was the outward success going to be sufficient for me or was I really and truly wanting to be a follower of Christ?

I never actually answered that question with words. Mainly because I did not know what was happening at the time. But I did answer, through the grace of God, by deeds. I kept going when everything in me wanted to stop. I kept trying to pray even when it resulted in more frustration. Did I mention that it was through God’s grace and not my will-power? Well, it was.

And God, in his perfect timing, relented. Prayers started happening. Scripture became full of God’s living word and not merely ink on a page. It was as if I was being lifted out of a fog into a bright sunshining day.

Lesson learned. Honor and glory are yours Lord…You are the means and the end!

I tell you this as an encouragement, believe it or not! 

I have come to discover that my love for the Lord grew exponentially during the season in the desert. I now do not take for granted a word from God or an opportunity for times of devotion. My desires were transformed.

I also tell you this to not put myself on a pedestal. Oh how far I still have to go in terms of my discipleship. I still have moments of imposter syndrome and doubt. There are days when my prays don’t make it past the ceiling and I can’t remember what I read from Scripture.Yes, I have a long way to go. 

But I have been changed, shaped, and molded. My season in the desert is exactly what God continues to use to pull me closer. I haven’t arrived but I am in a different place thanks to God working through my dry season.

Perhaps you, too, are in the desert. Hear from a fellow traveler these three things:

  1. God has not forsaken you even though it feels like it. God does not build faith on emotions but on promises of truth. Cling to promises even when feelings fail you.
  2. Ask this question and be patient for the answer. Is God enough for you? If everything else were to disappear, would you be satisfied with God alone or do you have other priorities that are higher than your relationship?
  3. Continue to move and don’t worry about the pace, the progress or the lack thereof. Faith grows in fits and spurts and not a smooth line. Two steps back often leads to huge leaps forward.

If I can be of any help, email me at todd@1stumc.org. I would love to hear your story and be an encouragement to you through prayer.

Without A Map – We Wander

18  Where there is no vision, the people perish:

Proverbs 29:18 KJV

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I have a dream” is one of the most powerful and lasting pieces of oral history. He set forth a vision for the future that was clear and compelling. And we as a nation latched on to the future possibilities and worked until they become more of a reality. I am not saying it is finished by any stretch but that we are farther along is readily seen.

Proverbs 29:18 in the KJV talks about “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Other translations talk about vision as the key to keeping people under the guidance and influence of God’s righteousness. Without a future hope we wander to our own personal desired destinies and not toward God’s and as the KJV says we “perish.” It is like taking a long trip having no way of knowing where we are going or how to get there. We need a map…a vision…to do that for us.

I believe this is why Scripture makes a concerted effort to point us toward Jesus’ return and the New Jerusalem. The day when we lose sight of the temporal nature of today and the eternal nature of tomorrow is the day we begin wandering.

How do we know if we’ve fallen into prioritizing today over eternity? 

When we care more about comfort than growth. 

When the safety and ease of today dominates our thought process and our future planning we have lost hold of God’s vision. I am not saying we shouldn’t plan and work for today. What I AM saying, however,  is that it shouldn’t be so dominant that we lose focus of God’s vision of eternity as our destiny.

Conclusion / Action

I am thankful for the words and vision of Dr. King. I believe they were God-breathed. 

I am also thankful for the words throughout Scripture that help us realize we are moving toward a day when there are no more tears, or death, or mourning, or pain.  A day so filled with God’s light there is no need for a sun or moon. May that vision be the dominant one in which re-order our lives and our communities to work toward. And in so doing, the will of God will be accomplished on earth as it is already in heaven. 

Heaven on earth. Now that sounds like something we could all get excited about!

A Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.

Amen

From the Book of Common Prayer