Well of Grace

You know what it means to Pay it Forward, right? It’s an idea that seems to have gained it’s footing most recently due mostly to the movie by the same name, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. But the idea has been recognized and written about much earlier than 2000 when the movie came out.

Maybe you’ve even been the benefit of such an act of kindness. It’s become a rather popular event particularly when in line for coffee at the Starbucks drive-thru. The person at the window pays for the coffee of the person behind them. This often leads to the recipient paying for the car behind them, and the car behind them, and so on until someone finally just accepts the gift and breaks the chain of giving. Well, I say popular, but I’ve never been a recipient nor participant, though it seems many of my coffee-drinking, Starbucks-loving Facebook friends have.

Okay, I’m putting down the bitter cup.

Anyhow, the idea is that you don’t repay someone for something they’ve done for you, but instead pay it forward to benefit someone you potentially have never met. It’s quite possibly the closest version to grace I’ve seen illustrated in Hollywood film.

But here’s the problem with the current demonstration in the Starbucks’ line: that’s only one venue. While it’s no small thing to pay for someone else’s coffee, someone you don’t know, the demonstration of grace typically ends there without any follow through. This is, without a doubt, a fantastic demonstration of generosity and kindness. And grace is definitely that, but it is not only that.

That’s not how grace is designed to work. It isn’t meant to be something we just turn on when we’re in line buying coffee. And it isn’t even meant to be exclusively monetary. Grace isn’t this switch we just flip on or off.

Grace ought to be continual. It out to be a regular part of our lives. We are gripped by it and then held in that grip. And it isn’t something that is motivated only by ourselves. If grace were something that I initiated, then it most certainly would have limits.

It would be limited because of my own limitations and resources. I just don’t have all that much that I can pass on. Now, I’m not making First World, Western Culture excuses—I realize how much wealth I really have when compared to the global situation. I’m referring to my spiritual, emotional, and social capabilities. I’m an introvert by nature and every conversation—including the ones with my own wife—tend to wipe me out. That is only one example. But I think it’s clear—I am limited. We are all limited.

But I’m not only limited by my means and resources; I’m limited in my intentions and desires, too. Simply put, I just don’t care enough. That sounds harsh, but it’s the harsh reality and a confession. I can be fairly selfish and stingy. I would intentionally limit what I gave freely. Because, let’s be honest, grace might be free for you to receive, but it will definitely cost me to offer it.

Grace is always costly.

Those limitations are the evidence that we cannot be the source of grace. All of our efforts, resources and inclinations towards some demonstration of grace are merely muddy puddles in comparison to the well of grace.

Now, you might say that we ought to give beyond our limits, to give sacrificially. You may say that I ought to be moving to a place where my selfishness and stinginess are decreasing. And you would certainly be right. But where do those ideas come from? Never mind that question. Where does the impetus for that kind of change come from?

I tell you, we are not able to come to that place alone.

We have to be carried there.

And when we are brought there we all at once recognize that grace is very much like a well where clean and cool water can be drawn. We don’t own the well, we didn’t dig it, but we keep coming back to it to draw for ourselves as well as for others. We carry it away in pitchers and flasks and offer it to whomever we encounter because there is more and it is free and it refreshes us from our dryness and thirst. It satisfies more deeply than any other thing. It is not ours to control nor to sell. We are offered it freely, but know that it must have cost greatly for the one who dug and maintains the well.

We learn that this well was dug from the foundations of the world so that we could draw so deeply.

Grace does not begin with us. And it does not end with us. We were never meant to be it’s sole recipients. Nor were we ever to pretend as those all these good things we are so generous (or stingy) about ever originated with us. His grace is so deep that it satisfies and sustains us and we overflow into the lives of those around.

The grace we experience comes to us from the triune God Himself. We receive it abundantly through the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

He gives freely.

We are able to be generous, kind and compassionate, not because we have accomplished this ourselves, but through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

He drank the bitter cup—the cup of God’s wrath—that His mercy and grace could be poured out on us.

His grace is a well, sufficient for every need—not ours alone and we must draw and drink deeply and invite others to do the same.

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When Fools (Parents) Rush In

The other morning I learned yet another valuable lesson from my kids. Oh the joys of parenting! (Yes, that was a little sarcastic.) I seem to learn more from my failures than from the things I am doing right. But maybe that’s how wisdom works.

Méav and I had just returned from dropping Iona at school and were taking our coats off. I hung mine up and bent down to help her. She was having trouble getting the zipper to release. But she pushed me away, “I do it!”

Now, so that you understand (and take my side) Méav is almost three years old and, like most three year olds, is reaching for independence at nearly every opportunity. And, like most children’s coats, the zipper isn’t actually designed adequately so that a child can operate it effectively. (Am I making a strong case yet?)

Well, I listened and backed off and let her try to undo the zipper again. But she was still having trouble. So, being the good (read pushy and rushed) parent that I am I offered my help again.

“I do it!”

There was that determined, but not defiant, tone again.

So, I pulled my hands back and let her. And I told her that it was okay to ask for help if she needed it.

Do you know what happened next? Yeah, she got the zipper undone . . . all by herself. It’s one of those moments as a parent when you’re both proud and a little perturbed at the same time. I was proud of her determination to stick to it and keep working on it. But I was perturbed because we could have had the coats hung up and been on to the next thing by now.

Now, so that you’re a bit relieved, I’ll let you know that I made the right choice and praised her for her accomplishment and hard work. And I didn’t let the seed of frustration linger or find any soil in my heart. She had the resolve to stick to finishing what was, for her, a difficult task and to find the pleasure in accomplishing it.

You know what that means, right? She’s gained a small level of capability and independence that will allow her to take more responsibility in the days to come.

Now this may seem like a really small thing, and in the light of that moment, it might be. But as far as I can see, a large part of my responsibility as a parent is to be nurturing my kids towards an independence that won’t require me to do everything for them. Frankly, I don’t want to have to show up to school at lunch and cut up their pizza. And I don’t have the time to come to recess and retie their shoes for them.

As parents, we become fools when we rush in too soon. We sometimes coddle when we should encourage. And we seek to rescue before we’ve let them learn resolve.

Now, I’m not saying that our children shouldn’t be supervised or watched over or protected or any of those things. But I think sometimes we have acted out of impatience and hastiness rather than patient and careful teaching. And we do ourselves a disservice by creating overly-needy and dependent kids who are unable to accomplish even the smallest tasks without adult intervention.

Nor am I suggesting that we should throw caution to the wind and push kids into situations that press them too hard or that would be dangerous to them.

But by letting them work at small tasks we give them opportunity for major accomplishment and growth. As well, they develop responsibility, resolve and a hard work ethic.

We should encourage them towards hope-filled dependence where they learn to trust God in all things, but aren’t afraid of taking some risks and working hard in difficult situations. And all the while, we will be learning right alongside of them.

The Difficulty of Discipline

The difficulty I have with discipline is that not only does it take time to develop the discipline, making it a regular and natural part of your life and routine, but it takes time to see the results.

I don’t so much mind developing new disciplines. In fact, I’ve tried to add that practice to my life. I’m learning to start (and continue) new things. I find that I seem healthier on various levels merely through the existence of a disciplined life.

But waiting on the results sometimes kills me. I want the thing I’m doing to make a difference now!

The problem here is that it indicates that I only think something is worth doing if I see an immediate return on my investment. But my problem is more than just the value of immediate gratification–it’s also a lack of perseverance and endurance.

No, the reality is that the greatest effect of discipline in life is the discipline itself. Whether it produces the results I expected as quickly as I anticipated is really just a measuring tool used for consumer satisfaction. And if I started something just because somebody sold me on it, I need to develop some resistance as well.

Discipline is more than a commodity. It isn’t something that can be bought and sold. It doesn’t allow us the ease of picking it up at the drive-thru and finishing it before we arrive at our next meeting. It has to to be fostered and nurtured and practiced.

You can’t measure it’s worth based on consumer confidence or how well a certain program has worked in someone else’s life. Discipline is a repeated effort . . . on my part. You can’t do it for me. And I can’t do it for anybody else. It’s a decision that I have to make again and again and again.

Discipline is present tense.

What I did yesterday only counts for yesterday. I still have to choose to keep at it today. And I’ll have to choose to do it again tomorrow and each day after that. But I will find it easier to choose the longer I go.

Though the results are incremental, the regularity of choosing discipline sets my life on a path and trajectory of being able towards making that right choice again. And then, after having followed that path of discipline for an extended time, I may see the effectiveness exponentially greater than I could have anticipated.

The difficulty of discipline is that I must make the choice today and wait to see the lasting results at a later time. It forces me to boycott the temptation towards the immediate gratification so wired in my culture’s consumerism.

The difficulty of discipline is that it requires more of me that I generally have to give. It is a call to endure, to not give up when I am discouraged or tempted to be distracted. It requires that I root myself in a strength that is not my own. That I draw from grace.

Untold Stories and Glimpses of Grace

In my attempt to read through the Bible again this year I’ve been reading lately through the book of Genesis. It always amazes me that I notice things that had been invisible to me before.

I’m in that part of the story that focuses on the life of Isaac and then his son, Jacob. He’s the younger twin of Isaac and Rebekah. His parents name him heel-grabber because of how he was born gripping the heel of his older brother, Esau. Some translations of the Bible throw in the caveat that his name could also mean ‘He cheats’ or “He deceives.’ (Just as an aside, I’m glad I wasn’t named for how I was born.)

As the story continues we see that Jacob soon lives up to his name. The first example is how he bargains for Esau’s birthright by withholding a bowl of stew. The next time he’s able to pull off a major deception for his father’s blessing—with some help from mom.

By the time these couple of chapters play out, Jacob has secured himself as the only recipient of the blessing and inheritance of his father. He cheats Esau out of what had been rightfully his. And by the time Esau becomes aware of it all, he’s raging and ready to kill his younger brother.

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

At this point, Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, steps in again. She overhears Esau’s words and sends Jacob away to his uncle Laban to wait it out while his brother’s rage settles.

And then the story fully shifts from focusing on the life of Isaac and his sons, to focusing on Jacob and how God continues to carryout His plan to fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham. Jacob spends 20 years with Laban and goes from being a single man on the run to having children from four different women, two of whom are Laban’s daughters. He has become not only successful, but a shrewd threat to his uncle. And having become a threat God tells Jacob to leave and to return to the land of his fathers.

At this point we’ve all but forgotten about Esau . . . but Jacob hasn’t. As he got near to where his brother would be, Jacob created an elaborate plan to assuage his brother’s anger. The plan included splitting his whole company and family into two separate camps as well as sending a gift (read bribe) to Esau. Jacob has not forgotten his name, even if the LORD Himself has changed it. He has not forgotten how he cheated his brother out of his rightful blessing. And he is fearful. Rightfully so.

And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

Jacob is afraid. He is sure that his brother will kill him and his entire family.

But here is the part that is amazing: Esau is changed. We aren’t told that explicitly in the text, but when we see his attitude and behavior, we cannot think otherwise.

But Esau ran to meet him and embrace him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

Esau shows no intention of taking Jacob’s life. He seems genuinely overjoyed at seeing Jacob. At first Jacob doesn’t seem to believe it, but nothing in the text indicates anything other than genuine love on Esau’s part.

What I find peculiar is this: we never read the story of what happened to Esau in those 20 years. Certainly we learn about how his family has grown, but we aren’t given any details about what had been happening in his heart.

I find great encouragement in this. God was at work in Esau’s life. Even though the intent of the narrative is to track Jacob’s life and how God would fulfill His promise to and through him, it doesn’t mean that God wasn’t working in Esau, too.

Sometimes we find ourselves tempted to think that God is only busy in certain people and places. The reality is that God is sovereignly working everywhere at all times. And though those 20 years of Esau’s life are an untold story, we are given a glimpse of the grace of God that had been at work. There is simply no other explanation.

God is at work whether the spotlight is on us or not. He is at work in our lives and the people around us. We can expect to see changes and they can only be attributed to the goodness and grace of God.

With Our Toes in the Jordan

After wandering for 40 years, Joshua stood in eager expectation . . . and even some fear. He had, along with the rest of the nation of Israel, followed Moses for those years through the wilderness. He had seen God’s continual faithfulness to provide time after time after time.

Water. Food. Meat. Shelter. Healing.

He had seen his fellow Jews rise and fall in their own faithfulness.

Sin. Repentance. Doubt. Following. Wandering. Worship.

He had seen the land where God was not only leading to give them, but the fulfillment of a promise that God had many hundreds of years before . . . to Abraham.

He had seen the impediments to that land and he had seen the fruit of it.

Now Moses was gone and the nation had changed. They had lost a whole generation due to unbelief. And he anticipated God finally fulfilling that promise though him. He would lead these people. That was less a privilege than it was an immense responsibility. It had proven to be more than a headache for Moses. It would, no doubt, be the same for Joshua.

Yet here he was, with only the Jordan river between the nation and the land—the culmination of 40 years of wandering and 400 years of slavery.

God’s words echoed in his ears:

Be strong and very courageous.

But the water was rushing. It was at flood stage. Was this really the best time to cross? Couldn’t we wait a bit longer? Could we build a bridge?

I don’t really know if Joshua wondered any of those things, but I know I am.

I’m standing here with my feet at the edge of the Jordan, fully expecting God to do something that is greater than what I personally have seen Him do before. Fulfilling a promise I can barely put into words, but know to be true in my heart. I have no idea what happens next and I’m half afraid my family and I will be washed away in the current.

In the midst of the anticipation as I turn around to consider whether I should turn back I, like Joshua, am reminded that there is a great number of people crossing along with me. This feeling doesn’t only represent my journey, but many others’ as well. Maybe even yours.

We have been following Him faithfully but are now standing in a place that seems less than clear and maybe a little crazy. And there is a moment where we freeze and have to decide whether to turn back or to step forward.

So, with God’s words in our ears and His presence with us . . .

Be strong and courageous . . . for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

let’s step into the water, and with our toes in the Jordan, watch and wait for God to heap up the waters and lead us into the fulfillment of His promise.

For My 9 year Old Explorer

While at grampy and grammy’s this summer you went to Cowboy Lake. There were no real cowboys; you assured me it was just the name of the lake–though no one seems to know why it was named that.

Anyhow, while there you collected 6 snails the size of your finger & thumb put together. I guess you lost one, but you still ended up with 5. Your sisters tried to catch some but they couldn’t find any.

You also tried to catch a fish, but that proved too difficult.

You are a great explorer. You love the outdoors and are sometimes most yourself when you’re in them.

Keep exploring. Whatever you do and wherever you go, explore. It’s part of your nature. It’s how you discover and learn and thrive. Explore. You’re good at it when others aren’t. It’s part of who God has designed you to be.

Explore. You will be able to lead others to and through your discoveries.

Explore. You will find you are more alive when you do.

Explore. Because it will give you the confidence to venture out and take the risks necessary to trust God in the unknowns. And there are always unknowns.

Explore. Discover. And then lead others.