The Joy of Preventative Grace

There is an old saying you probably know that states, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is not found in a Bible passage and is usually attributed to a preacher named John Bradford from the 1500’s. He wrote it in a more personal manner by saying, “there, but for the grace of God, go John Bradford.” It appears that his words caught on and became applied to believers everywhere. By the early 1900’s the phrase was regularly used by people across the globe, and we still use it today.

I know I have stated this one little sentence repeatedly in my life. It is uttered when I hear the story of high school classmates whose life turned out as less than glamorous. These words are spoken when I hear of a college classmate who left the ministry because of some dark sin in his life. I speak it when I see a Christian make a poor decision that could have been avoided. My life truly bears witness to the truth, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Most days I see my need for grace, and I am thankful for the forgiveness I find in the work of Christ. Occasionally I need to be reminded of the grace that I do not feel every day. Today I am thankful for the grace of God that prevented me from walking down some dark paths.

1. I am thankful for my family. I am grateful for parents who stayed together and gave me a great life. I am sure there were days they both felt like giving up on our family. God blessed me by preventing me from being raised in a fractured family.

2. I am thankful for my Church. Some of my earliest memories are of people in the Church teaching me the Bible. There have been people pointing me the right direction my whole life. Who knows how many mistakes I might have made without their guidance on my journey?

3. I am thankful for my relationships. I am grateful to God for not allowing me to develop a deeper relationship with that one girl in high school. She is now on her fourth marriage. I am thankful I did not marry that girl in college who did not want to be a preacher’s wife. I know she would have made me quit what I am doing years ago.

These are just a few of the ways God has guided my life with grace and mercy.

I am intensely aware of the grace that forgives my failures, but I need to be continually reminded of the grace that guides me every day. I could have walked through so much heartache and hardship in life and yet God prevented me from going down those paths.

Today is an excellent opportunity to remind myself of the truth that, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Maybe you needed to be reminded today too.

Why Did I Underline That?

Every believer should have a plan to read their Bible regularly. This one spiritual discipline will give you a more profound knowledge of God and his word, a better understanding of theology and help you grow spiritually. For the last nine years, I have developed my own plan, and I read through the Bible in about 18 months.

Each time I complete a journey through the Bible, I purchase a new Bible to read the next time. Occasionally I pick a different English translation, and sometimes I use a study Bible to help with my reading. Then I take the old Bible that I had just finished and move it to my pile that I use for sermon and lesson preparation, public speaking and any other use that comes along.

Frequently I will pick up one of my old Bibles to read, and I notice that I have underlined or highlighted something while I was on my reading plan. I will look carefully at what jumped out at me during that phase of my spiritual journey and wonder, “Why did I underline that?” I mean, what was I thinking? That statement that seemed so profound to me that I took out my pencil and drew a line under it now appears to be another random statement that has no unique value.

This experience reminds me of another passage of scripture. Hebrews 4:12 says in the New International Version, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Much of this scripture is familiar to someone who grew up in Church. As a young boy, my Sunday School teacher held “sword drills.” The Bible was our sword, and we were to look up whatever passage he announced. The first one to the verse was the winner and often received some prize.

The part of this passage that is easy to read past are the first words. “The word of God is living and active.” Wait, what? How can a book that was written on paper be active?

The truth is that God can speak to us through the words of the Bible in new and personal ways every time we read it. One season as I am reading I may be struggling personally, and God uses his word to speak to me through a particular passage. The next time I might be hurting from loss, and God speaks to me differently as I read through it.

One primary reason to read and reread the Bible over and over again is to receive what I need for that moment in time. Yes, it is still truth whether it touches my life or not. The sweet spot of spending time in the Bible is when I hear the voice of God using his truth to speak to me today. It may touch my heart and soul so much that I take out a pencil and underline it. I might even make a note in the margin.

I find a simple pleasure in reading the Bible and seeing those strange places where I underlined a sentence that means nothing to me now. It reminds me that the word of God is living and active and it is still touching lives today. Maybe he wants to speak to you today, take a little time to read and see what you hear. Be sure and have your pencil ready.

Deciding Who and What to Help

If you spent one month in the Church office, you would have a different view of helping people. Most people have no idea what happens here almost every day. It might surprise you the number of requests for money we receive repeatedly.

These requests come in one of three categories. First, there are phone calls for help with a bill. Almost all of these have a sad story about how they lost one of their utilities, or they are about to lose it. Also, people need help with gas or food immediately. Second, requests for support of a mission project. Numerous people want to accomplish something great for God. All their dreams require money, so they contact the Church seeking the help of other believers. The final group of requests is people looking for help with a community project. These are some type of good work, but usually, do qualify as God’s work. There is a need in our community, and people want to help, even though they will never mention the name of God they still look for help from the Church. Honestly, over the next month as we approach Christmas and we live in the shadow of the new year we will receive at least 30 requests for financial help.

I am blessed to serve in a Church that has several different avenues to help people this time of year. Even then, there is just no way to meet all the requests. So how does the Church decide who and what to help?

Here are several things our Church leadership considers.

1. We gather INFORMATION. Information is vital. The more we know, the better we can help. We request paperwork be filled out and submitted. We file old requests and make notes on them.

2. We seek the WISDOM of others. Frequently I text the other Churches in town to see what they know about the situation, person or ministry. I present information to the leadership of the Church and ask for input. No one person makes the decision about the Lord’s money alone.

3. We ask people to PRAY. We ask God to open or close doors, to show us the direction to go and how to best handle the situation.

4. We prioritize GOD’s WORK. As a Church we want to support people who are in the Church, are interested in the gospel or are trying to promote the work of the Lord. There are hundreds of good projects that help people who need support. They are good, if not great works, but they do not further the name of Jesus. We weight this issue carefully.

5. PERSONAL CONNECTIONS are helpful. Does anyone know who is requesting this money? Is there anyone who can stand up for this need and verify the people who are asking for it?

There is no set formula to handle all requests because every situation is unique. We, as a Church leadership, seek to decide based on the most accurate information to promote the work of God in our world. Sometimes, that means we must tell people who their request has been denied. It is not because we are mean or greedy, it just means there is not enough money to handle every need or want. I wish we could do more, but no Church has an overabundance of money. We must be wise with what God has given us.

Over the next six weeks, you will hear stories both good and bad coming from Churches. I know from personal experience, none of these situations were handled in a light-hearted way. Churches and their leaders have a heart to help, and we take it seriously. Sometimes wonderful decisions abound, and other times hard choices are required, I hope that God is glorified through it all.

What Kind of Example are You Leaving?

You are making an impression on someone.

This statement is true and must regularly be considered, especially in the life of a believer in Jesus. There is no truth in the idea that you “might” make an impact on other people. You are doing it. The real question is simple, “What kind of an example are you leaving for those who watch your life?”

That question only has two answers. You are a good example or a bad one. That’s it; there are no other options.

You may have forgotten this truth in your life, and it is good to receive an occasional reminder.

Here is another truth I want you to consider today. The people who watch your life, whether it be your children, grandchildren or a neighbor child, will evaluate your example against your words.

The standard they use to judge your life will not be your good intentions. They will use your words and lay them alongside your actions to get an accurate picture of what you really believe.

They will judge your faith. Do you say you believe in God and yet deny him with your life?

They will judge your relationships. Do you tell people you love them and then ignore their needs? Do you elevate other people above yourself?

They will judge your service. Do they see you giving of yourself to other people or are you selfish?

There is a long list of behaviors that will be weighed and considered with the words that you say.

Every person tends to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. You need to be clear that people are not considering what you intended to do, they are only looking at your words and actions.

With that in mind, what kind of example are you really leaving?

Some people are following your example whether you like it or not. Will the world be a better place because of what you leave behind?

Friday Fun: My Favorite Christian Movies

I have been thinking a great deal lately about Christian films. Last week’s sermon had some illustrations drawn from these movies. When I say Christian movies, I mean movies that were made primarily by Christians for Christians. Many of these are made with a low-budget and use no big-name actors.

I will be the first to admit that there are numerous terrible ones out there, but there are some that I come back to again and again.

These are my favorites.

1. The Passion of the Christ. There is a lot not to like about this movie. It uses a poetic license to add in extra drama and gore. With that said, has there been a more moving portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus?

2. Fireproof. The honest look at a man and his wife is filled with joy and pain. Sure, parts of the movie are stretched to fit the theme, but it does not detract too much. It is a movie I return to occasionally to remind myself of the commitment to marriage.

3. Luther. This movie with Joseph Fiennes inspires me. It is a look at the reformer through semi-historical eyes. Maybe it is because I am a preacher, but I love this movie.

4. Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This is a classic story with profoundly biblical imagery. My boys were young when it came out, and we watched it repeatedly. It always holds a special place in my heart.

5. The Case for Christ. My wife and I just watched this movie. It is the story of Lee Strobel and his journey to faith. I love the honest and raw emotion of a man who rejects religion but can’t seem to shake it. I will definitely be watching it again.

Honorable Mention. The rest of the movies in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Soul Surfer. Chariots of Fire is inspiring. The Mission is not a traditional Christian movie, but I enjoy the story. Finally, Leap of Faith with Steve Martin challenges me on several levels.

These are my favorites. I have obviously not seen all the Christian movies that have been made through the years. What are your favorites and why? I would love for you to share your thoughts in the comments. If you don’t have one that you like, maybe you could try one of these this Christmas season.

That Thing that Shaped My Life

I wanted to write a blog post about the one or two dramatic events that shaped my life. Something about that one time that particular person did that marvelous thing that molded my character as nothing else has in my life.

After several minutes of thinking, I really couldn’t name any moment where some grand gesture changed me. Instead, I thought of dozens of little events that continued to steer me the right direction.

1. There are the people who taught me. Through the years, numerous people have taught me about the Christian life and the Bible. My dad and mom, Virginia Vannice, Ted Scott, Dan Booth, Jon Sullivan, Mark Scott, JK Jones, George Faull and Fred Craddock. This is just a partial list. My life was shaped by more teachers than I can remember. Sometimes these were extended classes, but some people taught me in a casual setting in conversations. One way or another, their words changed me.

2. There are the people who sacrificed for me. Obviously, my parents are at the top of the list, but there are others. Another college student who gave me money so that I could go home one time. The people who donated funds for my mission trip to England. Those loving Christians who supported my new Church work when I moved to Iowa. The people who give to the Church I serve now that enables me to continue serving the Lord. My life has been directed by people willing to give of themselves and their resources.

3. There are the people who showed me grace. I am honest about how much I mess things up. I don’t often speak of the people who loved me through my failures. Some people saw the good in me when I made a royal mistake as a teenager. Other people stood by me when I was struggling in college. Still, other people did not turn their back on me when I failed in ministry. These people have kept praying for me and pushing me the right direction even when they could have given up.

4. There are the people who encouraged me. I have a box of notes and a file of emails from people who encouraged me through the years. Those people will never know how their words pulled me back from the edge and made me feel joy again. I read and reread their letters still many years later, and they remind me of the support I have in my life. These words given to in love have shaped my view of Christians and the Church in a profound way.

My life has had few big moments. Instead, it is the culmination of hundreds of small interactions. There is this tendency for people to think we should wait until just the right time to try and make an impact. Yes, there may be times that are better than others, but you will never know the amount of good you could do at any given opportunity.

God has given you today to touch someone’s life. I believe you do not have to do something grandiose to make a difference. Your impact could come from an email, a word, a visit, a prayer, a gift or any one of hundreds of small gestures of grace and love. Today your life may help steer the life of another person for good, so why not do something today?

Don’t Worry, I’m Not Depressed

I am not a perfect anything. I am not an ideal man. I am a struggling husband. I am a flawed parent. I am an average pastor. I am a frequent failure as a Christian.

I have no problem openly admitting this to anyone.

This blog was built on the idea that everyone fails. But grace also provides us with a second chance in Jesus.

Spending an hour on social media reminds me that few people see the world this way. There seems to be endless self-promotion going on wherever you look. Sometimes it is personal with a “Look how beautiful I am” picture. Sometimes it is relational with a “Look what I did for my family.” Other times it is more backhanded and subtle with “I have the best spouse” statements to let the world know how good we are for noticing. Finally, some are just blatant posts about “How proud I am of my child’s achievements” to remind us of your impressive parenting skills. It seems we want the world to know we have no flaws or struggles.

Honestly, I believe some people have started living their lives solely for the approval of others. They do everything for the praise or applause of the people in their circle of influence. Everything is a chance for a great photo that I can post to show the world my excellence as a person.

Reading the Bible paints a different picture for me. It states that we are all sinners. We are flawed, and everyone has cross boundaries we should not have crossed. We are like sheep who have gone astray and are now lost with no idea how to get home. Our best attempts at trying to be a righteous person are like filthy rags in God’s sight. We are not okay.

On here, I try to be completely honest about my struggles as a man, husband, father, and preacher. It frequently leaves people worried about me. “Are you okay?” seems to be a common question. Email, texts and comments about how great I am as a pastor appear every week. I sincerely appreciate them, but they often feel like people are trying to encourage the depressed kid so that he doesn’t go crazy one day.

Don’t worry about me. I just find no value in positive self-promotion. There is too much of that going on in the world, and it is leaving a whole segment of people confused and feeling alone. I want them to know they are not alone. We all struggle, but people have been taught to cover their feelings of insecurity with a happy face and pretty pictures.

I find my self-worth based on three pieces of Biblical information. First, I am created in the image of God. Second, God saved me in Jesus. Third, God has a plan for my life, if I am willing to let him use me. These truths are foundational and unchanging.

Today will be another day full of missed opportunities, failed attempts and disobedience. I am okay with telling you this because God will still be with me even in my imperfect world. I also want you to know he is with you too.