Offensive, Scandalous Grace

TRIPPING UP

Grace, the Stumbling Stone
Grace, the Stumbling Stone

I am klutzy.  I trip over the tiniest variations in sidewalks, over cobblestones, up and down steps.  Usually I can awkwardly recover before I go all the way down, but it’s still embarrassing.  My sweet husband keeps count of the number of times I stumble when we are out together.  I think I average 3-4 wobbles per outing.  I never set out to trip.  Usually when I do, it’s because I was distracted and not paying attention to my feet.  I hit a hazard that I just didn’t see, and boom—down I go.  It’s painful and humiliating.

Tripping is an accident that happens when I try to do too many things at once.  My husband doesn’t get annoyed with me when I fall down.  He doesn’t judge my ability to walk and shame me for falling.  He laughs a little when I stumble, but he always grabs my arm to stabilize me.  He gets concerned if I go all the way down.  He doesn’t walk away; he helps me back up.  I am, however, embarrassed and hoping no one else noticed.

Things are similar in our walk with Christ.  I don’t believe that Christians set out to sin; it’s an accident.  We trip over the place we didn’t see coming when we didn’t realize we were vulnerable.  Sometimes we just stumble and sometimes we go down hard.  Most of the time, these incidents are accidents, not a product of evil intentions.  The fact that someone hides their sin and got caught, however, is not an indicator that they purposefully, secretly, set out to sin.  It only means that they are embarrassed by it.  It’s a normal, human response.  This perspective should change how we deal with people.  Instead of pushing people away when they fall, we reach out to stabilize and to support.

The Bible says that grace itself is a stumbling stone.  When Jesus came, religious people didn’t see it coming.  They were caught up in appearances and in following the rules to earn moral superiority.   The free grace Jesus offered threw them for a loop.  “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:30-33 NIV)

Jesus, grace embodied, is the ultimate stumbling stone.  There are parts of Jesus that can be really hard to understand.  There are things that God forgives that I have a very hard time forgiving.  It trips me up and I don’t even realize I have stumbled over grace.  Why would someone get a clean slate, free and forgiven, for major betrayals like adultery, or for swindling little old ladies?  Does God forgive a pedophile?  Does God forgive a murderer?  Is grace big enough to cover these things?  If Hitler repented on his deathbed and God decided to save him, my Jewish family would reject God because his grace is too inclusive.  Muslims who follow Sharia law reject Christianity because of grace.  It’s too loose, too free.  Things that we hold on to, God lets go of.  I’m happy for God’s grace to cover my junk, but sometimes grace looks like injustice when it covers someone else.  Grace can be a stumbling stone.

We each carry the weight of our own failures.  Most of us have secret places in our past, distant or recent, where we tripped and fell, but we keep them hidden because we are embarrassed by the errors.  These things can make us feel under qualified to take our place serving or leading in the church.  Do those things disqualify us from connecting to the church and sharing Jesus?

NAUGHTY NAUGHTY GIRLS

I noticed something truly interesting in the genealogy of Jesus.  Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews, to prove to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  He rattled off the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his book because where Jesus came from mattered to Jewish people.  There are some truly illustrious men in that list—superstars like Abraham, King David, and King Jehoshaphat.  The ladies that got a mention, however, are decidedly less so.  They are kind of a who’s who of the naughty girls of the Bible, starting with Tamar, the girl who pretended to be a prostitute so she could score a one-night stand with her father-in-law, Judah.  She wanted her father-in-law to get her pregnant.  Shocking!  Then there is Rahab, the prostitute and treacherous turncoat, followed by Ruth, the shameless woman who snuck into a man’s camp in the dark and slept next to him to force him to marry her.  These are Jesus’s great-grandmas.  The virgin Mary has a lily white image, but even she was a bit of rebel if you think about it.  She would have had a sketchy reputation, having gotten pregnant and giving birth before marrying Joseph.  If Mary had been my daughter, I would have married her off as soon as possible and said as little as possible, hoping people didn’t add up the months.  Mary must have wanted to make sure that everyone knew Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son.  That’s pretty edgy.

The Bible doesn’t explain why these are the women included in Jesus’s pedigree.  There must have been other wives that lived good, tidy lives who didn’t get a mention.  God must have included these girls in the recorded lineage of Jesus for a reason.  Perhaps it is to tell us that he doesn’t pass over girls who have made mistakes; who have stumbled trying to navigate life.  Even the girl with most checkered past can be a God-carrier.  The scandal and the babies that resulted from those scandalous relationships resulted in the most gracious perfect gift to mankind.  It makes no sense; it’s a stumbling stone, but our failures and our foibles don’t disqualify us from serving up Jesus to the world around us.

I know some of you may feel an obligation to challenge this.  There are some pretty stern passages throughout 1 Corinthians about people who sin, and some strong requirements for the people who lead in the book of Timothy.  Yes, those who lead are judged to a higher standard.  Yes.  But are those leaders any less entitled to the same grace we enjoy?  Or is their need for grace a stumbling stone for you?

WHEN LEADERS FALL

I’ve watched a few Olympic races.  Sometimes, the racer makes an error and falls.  The sportscaster will always replay the big moment in slow motion.  They show the misstep and the athlete going down, mouth open, arms and legs flailing.  Racers nearby get tripped up in the churning limbs, and the massive train wreck results in a jumble of bodies and injuries on the ground.

This is what happens when Christian leaders stumble.  Usually their error affects the people closest to them, and can cause real pain for the people closest to them.  When they stumble, they cause other people to stumble.  Untangling those train wrecks and nursing the injuries is not a small matter.  Every fallen leader has to carry the responsibility for this.  It’s the getting back up part that I am chewing on.  Jesus gives grace freely to each one of us.  It’s very clear that none of us are perfect yet, no matter what position we hold.  Do those mistakes disqualify fallen leaders for future leadership?  If we don’t actually get back up but stay committed to our funk, clearly it does.

In church, no one has any obligation to stay or to serve or to give.  People can leave at any time and go find another church.  People only follow us to the extent that they respect us.  If your life is a visible mess, people will not follow you.  Ergo, you are disqualified from leadership because you are leading no one, because no one will follow you.  I wonder if the qualifications for leadership that Paul gave to Timothy have more to do with this practical reality than anything else.  We all require the grace of Jesus to stand righteous—every one of us.  Our own righteousness did not qualify us for leadership to begin with, so it can’t later either.

God made a point by including only flawed women in his lineage.  I wonder if Tamar will be embarrassed when I meet her in heaven.  Out of her whole life’s story, the one snapshot that got included was her scandalous baby-making endeavor.  Her story makes me feel pretty good about my flubs being redeemable.  Our journey of grace doesn’t have to be a private one.  If we are willing, our grace journey can show others the way, providing a pathway people can follow.

People root for the underdog.  People love a comeback story.  People will follow a fallen leader that gets back up and learns from their mistakes.  God’s grace covered their sin the minute they put it under the blood of Jesus.  Will his grace be a stumbling stone for us, or a point of victory?

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When Things are Bananas, Focus on the Fruit

It’s inevitable. We all face seasons when life is less than peachy. Our leadership is producing nothing but lemons. All our pretty, pretty pleas for help must be lacking the cherry on top, because no one is responding. As hard as you try, you just can’t find that sweet spot; and all that hard work left you plum tired. Things are absolutely bananas!

Some time ago, I saw a funny-ish old episode of “Frasier” where the doctors Crane learn to ride bikes for the first time as adults. The brothers go to a local park to practice their new skill. Frasier is terrified of riding into hazards along the path. While he rides, he carefully focuses on the trees to make sure he doesn’t run into them. He’s so focused on them that sure enough, he rides right into exactly what he wanted to avoid! Whatever he focused on, he crashed into.

The same principle applies in life. When times are tough, what we are focused on makes all the difference. When we focus our attention and emotion on the potential hazards along the way, we crash land into the problems. Whatever we are focused on is what we are targeting. We can spend all our time running after fixing problems, and there is an endless succession of them! It leads to a terrible quality of life. When we are forced to continually react to and repair what is happening to us, we burn out.

We get through tough seasons by focusing on the right things. Jesus never called us to a life of misery! He said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) Life is better when most of our attention is focused on building vision rather than the problems. We need to keep the problems in our peripheral vision, but keep our focus on the things that move us forward. This means putting more energy and attention into what we are doing right than what we are doing wrong. Keep your eyes on the prize!

It’s easy to define wins if we are working toward a clear vision. We can only move forward if we have a target we are aiming for. It doesn’t matter how young or how old we are—if we don’t have a vision, it’s time to do some dreaming! If the dream seems derailed, then it’s time to pick back up and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t.

While every person needs unique goals, there is also a universal mission that Jesus gave the church collectively. Our mission is to help make new followers of Christ while we move forward on our own journey. That journey is a multi-step process and takes a lifetime to complete. Each step forward in that process is producing what the Bible calls fruit. Every decision that is a step toward Jesus is worth celebrating! It doesn’t matter how far along we are, as long as we are moving!

Fruit comes in all shapes and sizes, but it is all fruit! My fruit will not necessarily look like your fruit. This doesn’t make either kind any less valuable. Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree because it wasn’t bearing strawberries. He cursed it because it had no fruit. It can be easy to devalue the fruit we are producing because we are too familiar with it. Sometimes we look into someone else’s garden plot and see the beautiful things being produced and get overwhelmed. We’ve been in it since the beginning—planting seeds, dealing with manure, watering it, and watching slow growth. It’s a whole lot of work! The fruit that comes out the other end can be very rewarding, or disappointing, if it’s not what we were hoping for.

Harvest seasons have historically always been time for celebration and thanksgiving. We have an entire American holiday around that theme! Next time you feel a little discouraged, look for your fruit. You will find it in the place you have been working hard and investing. It is incredibly valuable to God, and it’s a reason to celebrate!

Instagram, Self-torture, Measuring Tape, and Pineapples

INSTAGRAM AND MENTAL SELF-MUTILATION

The latest apps like Picflow or Video Story sew a bunch of photos together into one Instagram slide show—perfect for your year in review.  My photo stream is full of them today.  I can see the 2013 highlight reel of any number of friends in snapshots.  It’s funny how fantastic this makes our lives look.  It’s all the best moment of the year crammed together into fifteen or twenty seconds.  Even the worst year can look pretty amazing in an Instagram slide show!  It’s easy to look an acquaintance’s slide show and feel a twinge of envy.

For most humans, this kind of reflection is our annual tradition as the New Year turns over.  It’s time for happy memories, wishes for revisions, and plans for self-improvement.  I always experience an interesting tension between regrets that I am not where I want to be and motivation for the fresh New Year.  This self-reflection, however, is a bit of a slippery slope toward self-comparison.  There are always others around my age and experience that are so much farther down the track than I am.  Self-comparison leads to self-criticism—Get it together, Anna!

I have several friends who have had an exceptionally difficult year.  Needless to say, they did not post an Insta year-end slide show.  When your life is not on the upswing, this kind of New Year’s mental self-mutilation is even easier to slip into, particularly for leaders.  My prayer for any of you experiencing this kind of self-torture today is grace for the journey.  The Bible talks about the ups and downs we will face.  Our leadership journey is going to have fantastic seasons and others that feel very lonely and difficult.  Thankfully, Jesus promises to be with us at every step, and to bring us to a great place of vision and his presence.

“And how blessed all those in whom you live,

    whose lives become roads you travel;

They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,

    discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!

God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and

    at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”

                                                      (Psalm 84:5-7 MSG)

This season will not last forever!

USE YOUR OWN MEASURING TAPE

The path out of self-disappointment starts with a liberal application of God’s grace.  As leaders, we tend to measure out God’s grace generously to those we minister to, but withhold it from ourselves.  Grace for the journey gives us permission to learn from our mistakes rather than disqualify ourselves.  Grace gives us permission to move at a sustainable pace rather than watch our relationships wither on the altar of our to-do list.  God’s grace gives us permission to love the strengths we have rather than hate the weakness that are part of our humanity.  Our journey is our own, and not comparable to anyone else’s.  

As leaders, we tend to measure fruitfulness based on statistical performance, opportunities, and the perceptions around our ministry.  We go through seasons when what God is building in us is bigger than what he is building through us.  Those seasons when he is strengthening the foundations of our lives and building character can look barren on the outside, but they are vital for the next season.  If we aren’t aware of what he is doing in our lives right now, we can spin our wheels chasing after success when just maybe, this season is designed for us to get healthy.  Health produces fruit, and not the other way around.

Learning grace for the journey means learning how to measure our progress in rhythm, at the right places and the right times.  Too often we measure sporadically, or use someone else’s measuring tape.  Our measuring tape should be the vision and values of the ministry we serve, not the vision and values of the church whose conference we love to attend.  If we measure our progress according to the vision God has called us to, then we have an accurate picture of our progress.  Hillsong is called to write original worship songs that the church worldwide can worship with.  If your church’s primary vision is to feed and clothe the needy in East Jahunga, then the fact that you aren’t producing original worship songs sung around the world isn’t a fail.  

Too often we measure by comparing what we have built to what people we respect have built.  Paul talked about our journey as a race, and it’s easy to get focused on winning by being more successful than other leaders.  The kind of race we are in is more similar to a marathon.  Long distance runners aren’t nearly as concerned about what place they finished the race in as whether or not they beat their PR.  Their goal is to beat their personal record, to run their personal best.  We are more like distance runners than sprinters.  Measure against your own progress, no one else’s.

Women in particular can be guilty of measuring themselves by someone else’s measuring tape.  We measure by comparing our lives to our best girl friends’ lives.  We literally compare our body measurements.  We tend to take our kids’ failures and successes and measure ourselves by them.  Girls, your kids’ mistakes do not disqualify you any more than their successes validate you.  Your kids measuring tape is not for you!

GOING IT ALONE: ALWAYS A SERIOUS MISTAKE

It’s human nature to want to withdraw from relationship with people we respect when things aren’t going so well.  We don’t want them to see us vulnerable, or maybe we don’t trust them to handle us with love and acceptance.  I have friends who have pulled away from good relationships in hard times.  They stopped attending the conferences they used to attend, don’t reach out like they used to, and they felt hurt that no one was reaching back.  It would seem foolish for me to feel hurt for something I changed, but it’s a trap many of us fall into.  I have to take responsibility for my own relationships; I can’t blame someone else for my choices.  If I disengage from relationship, then I will go through hard times alone.

One of the many things I love about my husband are his skills at building and maintaining friendships.  He is able to genuinely and wholeheartedly celebrate the successes of his friends.  Just as quickly, he gives love and support when things are going badly.  Not everyone is able to do that authentically.  I have been in leadership environments where people struggled to celebrate their friends’ successes.  Being part of a leadership community requires that we don’t give ourselves permission to think that someone else’s progress diminishes ours or that their success makes ours smaller.  If we want true friendship, we have to learn to authentically value and celebrate the progress of those we are in relationship with.  The nature of true relationship and true community is that we cheer each other on, not one-upmanship.  

At various moments over the years, I’ve caught myself watching someone else’s success, examining it for weaknesses.  I’m not sure why, but maybe their weaknesses made their success seem more achievable.  If I am cheering someone on with my mouth, but in my head looking for something to criticize, then I have made myself smaller.  The same applies to you.  We probably all have had to face this battle at one time or another, feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s triumph.  We have to catch ourselves at it, give ourselves some grace for the journey, and then decide to value the success wholeheartedly.  After all, we win when then church globally wins.  Our friends are not the competition we need to try to outdo.

PINEAPPLES AND BELL PEPPERS ARE BOTH FRUIT

Pineapples and bell peppers may be culinary opposites, but they are both fruit.  Fruit comes in thousands of different shapes, sizes, color, and textures.  Some are sweet, some are not.  Traveling from temperate America to the tropics will give you a rapid revelation of how limited our awareness is about fruit.  We tend to categorize things neatly: apple, banana, orange, grape.  There are things out there that simply defy categorization.

The same is true about kingdom fruit.  It looks wildly different on different ministries.  We get fruitful where we put resources, leadership, and energy.  What we work toward is what we produce.  We have different passions, different styles, and different levels of resource that all produce churches that look and feel very different.  The growth in every church environment is fruit.  Fruit is found in people–numbers growth, leadership development growth, and character growth.  Fruit looks different on every ministry.  We are all filling different kinds of roles and answering the different kinds of needs that Jesus calls us to.  

Every kind of fruit is valuable and important.  Our tendency is to focus on others’ strengths but our own weaknesses, undervaluing our own fruitfulness.  We have to learn how to value the fruit we can produce!  We are uniquely capable of reaching specific kinds of people.  The church needs what you were specifically designed to bring!  Just because it doesn’t look, smell, or taste like someone else’s success doesn’t make it any less a fruit.  The fact that we have the potential of producing more fruit or healthier than we are now doesn’t make the fruit we do produce any less valuable.  Celebrate each step of the journey of fruitfulness.

If you have been caught in the torture of mental self-mutilation, comparing your year-in-review to someone else’s, pause here.  A change of focus is required, moving from the failures to the wins.  Take a deep breath in, and thank God for this year’s journey.  What he has taught us has taken us a step forward toward strength, health, and purpose.  No one else’s progress diminishes that strength.  Eyes up, shoulders back, smile in the face of the next challenge ahead, and into 2014 we go!  And good luck in East Jahunga!