Grace When You Don’t Do Anything

9 03 2009

 

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Sam Phillips is like an old friend.  I even knew her when people called her Leslie.   Leslie Phillips was one of the biggest “Contemporary Christian” artists of the 1980’s until the artistic limits the industry placed upon her sent her into the mainstream market.  If Phillips’ music is anything, it is creative with spiritual themes flowing through her music like a “River of Love”.  Since leaving the Christina market, she has met incredible critical success but her commercial success has been limited, peeking with her stint as the in-house songwriter for the television series “Gilmore Girls”.  

Phillips latest album is not only creative but is brutally honest as well.  The album clearly is an open testimony of a life lived through the heartbreak of a difficult divorce from her husband, producer T- Bone Burnett.  Each song is like a journey through the valley of betrayal, loneliness, heartache, and stubborn faith through what Chesterton called the “dark night of the soul”.

Leslie Phillips may have left “Christian music” in 1987 and changed her name to Sam, but her lyrics have demonstrated that she never left Christianity. “Don’t Do Anything” is the strongest example of that.  On the surface, the album seems dark but, when one looks deeper, convictions about God’s grace are clearly stronger than the questions which are asked.

At first glance the title song ”Don’t Do Anything” seems odd and out of place on this album.  It is surrounded by other songs which delve into the frailties and inadequacies of human love.  But, it would appear that this was by design.  Phillips apparently understands the necessity to show “ungrace” and its painful effects before revealing the beauty of God’s grace. Human love can lead to broken hearts, often has strings attached, and offers no guarantees.  It is conditional.  However, God’s grace is unconditional; it is eternal and dependable.  Phillips states it well:

“I, I love you 

When you don’t

When you don’t do anything

When you’re useless

I love you more

When you don’t do anything

 

When you don’t move, when you don’t try

When you don’t say anything

When you can’t feel, When you don’t win

When you don’t make anything”

 

For those who have come to the end of themselves and realized their own frailties, it is as if God is speaking from heaven.  One can almost see a broken hearted wife and mother who sees her world has collapsed around her and, like Psalm 46, whose foundations have collapsed.   But, in the midst of her despair, she hears the voice of God say “I love you even when you have blown it, but I love you more than that.  Be still and know that I am God because I love you even when you don’t do anything.”

“I, I love you

When you don’t 

When you don’t do anything

When you don’t want, when you don’t lie

When you don’t make any sense

When you don’t go, when you don’t hide

When you don’t think anything

 

I, I love you 

When you don’t

When you don’t do anything

When you’re useless

I love you more

When you  don’t do anything.”

Go read Psalm 46 and then don’t do anything but know that you are loved.

 

 

 

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Grace on the Field

13 02 2009

 

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Few people would expect to find grace at a high school football game in the middle of Texas on a Friday night.  Texas is known for its high school football being possibly the most competitive and tough in the country.  It’s take no prisoners reputation has spawned big screen movies and a television series.  So no one would have ever expected to see a life changing display of grace in Grapevine, Texas on a Friday night at a high school game, but that is just what they found.  

The game on that Friday night was between Grapevine Faith vs. Gainesville State.  It was the oddest game from the very beginning.  The spirit line was there with all of Faith’s students and fans lined up on the field for the players as they ran out to wild cheers, but it was Gainesville State’s players who ran through to the roar of the line and fans.  

The stadium was full of homemade spirit banners, like ones you might find any Friday at a High School game, but the signs held by Faith’s students said “Go Tornadoes!” and, well, Grapevine Faith’s mascot is a lion.

At least the fans were all there. Both the home team and guest team bleachers were filled, but they were all filled with Faith fans who, oddly enough, were cheering for Gainesville State’s players.

By now you’re probably thinking that this is one of those games where everyone comes together because the other team has lost a player or faced a tragedy beyond their control.  Not really, the grace at this game went a little deeper than that.   

When the game was over it wasn’t even close.  Faith destroyed Gainesville State 33-14.  However the strangeness continued.  The losing team received a standing ovation and the losing coach was showered with a traditional Gatorade victory bath.  

The 12 uniformed officers who had stood at Gainesville State’s sideline seemed to be out of place throughout the game but now moved into action as they began to escort the players off the field in pairs and load them onto the waiting bus.  The bus which would return them to their maximum-security prison.

Faith is a Christian High School and its head football coach, Kris Hogan, wanted to teach his players a life lesson about grace.  He did much more.  He taught an entire school and town.  However, perhaps most importunely, he taught some boys who had committed violent crimes that mercy can transcend justice.  In the world where most of these inmates had lived, that was something they had never encountered before a Friday night, on a football field, in Grapevine, Texas.

When he first had the idea he told his players, “Here’s the message I want you to send to the boys at Gainesville State:  You are just as valuable as any other person on Earth.”

One last thing happened right before those armed guards led the Gainesville boys back to their prison.  Everyone gathered in the center of the field to pray and, to the shock of almost everyone there, it was a Gainesville player that asked to pray.  “Lord,” he began, “I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

The Faith fans and players watched as the prison bus pulled away.  The Gainesville boys had their hands pressed to the windows watching, as if they wanted one last look at these strange people who showed them grace when no one else would.  Then Coach Hogan and his players turned to walk back to the locker room.  

You’re not supposed to cry in locker rooms after you have won a Friday night game, but it was not an ordinary game that Friday night in Grapevine, Texas. These boys had learned there are some things much more important than winning and that maybe, sometimes, real men do cry.





A River of Grace

5 11 2008

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River tells the story of Jeremiah Land, a custodian at a local school.  He has been known to perform miracles from time to time, including one which brought healing to his son Reuben. Jeremiah lives with his three children: 16-year-old Davy, 11-year-old Reuben, and 9-year-old Swede.  The novel is written from the perspective of Reuben Land who, as an adult, reflects on his family in 1962 Minnesota and the events that altered the path of their lives. Reuben reveals his father to be a quiet gracious man who is humble and gentle and has been given  a gift which he uses not for himself but for others.

The novel takes a dark turn when Davy kills two teenage thugs who invade his family’s home. It isn’t long before the whole community turns on the Lands, especially the school superintendent—Jeremiah’s boss—Chester Holgren. Mr. Holgren is a nasty man with a diseased face. Young Reuban, the story’s narrator, describes Mr. Holgren as “a man whose face was a minefield of red boils.” He adds: “I hated him, I’ll admit, and would soon hate him more, but a person had to feel sorry about this face. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried a dish called tomato pudding. It’s cooked soft and is ever so red and lumpy.”

Mr. Holgren does whatever he can to make Jeremiah’s life miserable, eventually firing Jeremiah for false accusations of drunkenness. The firing takes place in the school cafeteria in front of all the children. Here’s how Reuban describes the scene:

“I left my milling classmates and headed for Dad, where he stood in rapt surprise facing Holgren. I hadn’t in mind to say anything, and indeed I didn’t; for as I approached Dad lifted his hand, sudden as a windshift, touched Holgren’s face and pulled away. It was the oddest little slap you ever saw. Holgren quailed back a step, hunching defensively, but Dad turned and walked off. The superintendent stood with his fingers strangely awonder over his chin, cheeks, and forehead. Then I saw that his bedeviled complexion—that face set always at a rolling boil—had changed. I saw instead skin of a healthy tan, a hale blush spread over cheekbones that suddenly held definition; above his eyes the shine of

constant seepage had vanished, and light lay at rest upon his brow.

 

Listen: There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God. For his part, Mr. Holgren didn’t know what to make of it; he looked horrified; the new peace in his hide didn’t sink deep; he covered his face from view and slunk from the cafeteria.

 

I knew what had happened, though. I knew exactly what to make of it, and it made me mad enough to spit.

 

What business had Dad in healing that man?

 

What right had Holgren to cross paths with the Great God Almighty?

The story of Jeremiah and Mr. Holgren is fiction, of course. But in the real world, Christian mercy is a miracle of sorts. It is two miracles! It takes a miracle of God to show that kind of mercy, and it is a miracle to be touched by such mercy.

 

 





Grace, Marriage, and Living

30 05 2008

Travis Harris asking Kelsey to marry him off the coast of Africa where they will serve Christ together.

There we were, sitting in the covered pavilion lit by candlelight and waiting on my nephew’s beautiful bride to arrive for their wedding.  At precisely two minutes before the wedding’s scheduled beginning, my cell phone rang.  “I cannot believe I am one of those people who forget to turn their cell off at occasions like this!  I am a pastor for crying out loud,” I thought to myself as I tried to inconspicuously answer.  “Darian,” my wife said on the other end, “I thought I would get your voice mail.  Mrs. Ginny just died.  I thought you would want to know.”

Only a few weeks before, we had celebrated Mrs. Ginny’s 95th birthday at a local restaurant with a number of our church family.  We laughed, smiled and even teared up a little as we listened to her stories of welcoming back the “Dough Boys” from World War I when she was a young girl, stories about teaching Sunday school to our community children, and of her life with her husband Howard (whom Ginny called Dan).  I had visited Ginny in the hospital shortly before leaving for my flight back home to Georgia and knew she probably would not make it until I returned.  We prayed and she told me she was ready to see Christ and be reunited with her beloved Dan.  She had missed him terribly since his death and we had prayed over her loneliness more than once.

Just as I closed the cell phone, an antique truck blasted its horn as it announced the arrival of Travis’ beautiful bride.  It was one of the most beautiful and Christ-centered weddings I had ever attended.  However, I could not help but think upon Ginny and Howard as I watched my nephew and Kelsey exchange their vows and make a covenant before God and His church to live their lives together in service to Him. 

I bowed my head as the wedding continued and prayed, “Lord, give them the grace they will need to keep the vows they are making.  They will never make it in their own strength.  Pour out your grace upon them and let their marriage reflect that grace to a world in such need of it.”  I looked up in time to hear Travis and Kelsey pronounced husband and wife, see their wedding kiss and watch them depart as the bells rang.

Later, I heard the story of Mrs. Ginny’s passing more fully and was amazed at how our Lord works.  Seconds before she entered the presence of her Lord, Ginny began to have a radiance in her face and a slight smile.  “I see the Lord,” she said.  “Dan is with Him.  They’re waiting on me.”

I thank God for the mercy He gave Ginny as she passed, for the grace of her salvation, for the living grace He gave her in life and marriage.  I thank God for the grace He has given Travis and Kelsey for their salvation and ministry together.  I pray they will lean upon Him as they journey through life.  As I pray these things and think upon them God’s Spirit speaks, “Go tell your wife you love her.  She needs to hear it from you more often than she does.  Go be an example of grace in your own marriage.”  Maybe He is telling you the same thing. 





Freedom is Scary

29 04 2008

In the film The Shawshank Redemption, actor Morgan Freeman portrays a character by the name of Ellis “Red” Redding.  Red sits a prison cell for 40 years longing for freedom and mourning the thoughtless act of violence he committed as a teenager which landed him there.  Finally, after 40 years, Red is set free!  FREE!  However, Red, learns what we all discover sooner or later.  The greatest prison is the one we place ourselves into.  Red finds that too much freedom is scary.  You see, rules, regulations, structure, law all create a false sense of safety which too often we will gladly sell our freedom cheap to attain.

“It’s a terrible thing to live in fear,” Red says as he reflects upon his new found freedom.  He even confesses that he thinks about various ways he can break his parole and return to the prison he so longed to escape from.  Freedom can be scary. 

I wish Red was the exception of how we look at freedom but it seems to me to more often be the rule.  I have discovered that, while Christians talk about freedom in Christ and sing about His grace, we are allot more like Red than we would like to admit.  It never ceases to surprise me at how angry people can get over the issue of grace once you pass the point of meaningless sentimentality and cross the line into the reality of what it means.  I have come to the belief that their anger comes from fear.  Freedom can be scary and grace brings freedom.  It is so easy and safe to retreat into a prison of dos and don’ts.  There is a dishonest sense of calm we feel sitting in our prison cells erected by overly simplistic black and white walls.

The church of Christ should never profess to free people from sin only to turn around and enslave them by erecting legalistic walls which proclaim righteousness but produce another fallen form of idolatry.  Anything which turns our eyes upon self rather than to the cross is sin no matter how safe it appears or righteous it claims to be.  We must continually and intentionally focus our gaze upon the cross of Christ, upon the renewal found in His grace, upon the freedom found in His love.  YES – freedom can be scary but His grace is sufficient.  Embrace it today!





When Love Comes to Town

15 04 2008

The U2 – BB King song “When Love Comes to Town”, first released on U2’s Rattle and Hum album, tells a story of one who unmistakably understands their own depravity and need for grace.  However, the song goes beyond an  understanding of one’s human depravity and need for divine grace because the core of it is to tell the story of how once grace has been truly encountered it transforms from the inside out.

The song begins with the imagery of a sailor lost at sea who can only be rescued by an outside force bigger than himself and his abilities.  A sailor, by the very nature of who he is, is expected to know his location at sea and be able to find safety and his way home.  So the song, from the first line, shows clearly that there are actions which we take that can only be fixed by the love of a merciful God.

In the second verse the song moves from the abstract to the more concrete.  A young male lover tells how he betrays love in order to fulfill his sexual desires.  The writer uses the imagery of white and a wedding gown to reveal the level of  innocence which was betrayed.  This was a young man making empty promises to an innocent girl with no intention of fulfilling them.  His only aim is to receive what he desires at the expense of another.

In the final verse we see that we are not only completely lost, not only are we capable of the betrayal of the love of another, but we are at our core sinners who have betrayed the very God who provides the love which can redeem us.

“I was there when they crucified my Lord – I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword  – I threw the dice when they pierced His side – But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.”

So, where is the grace here you maybe asking?  Grace is in the chorus.  It is between the sin, surrounding the sin.  What an amazing chorus it is because it masterfully reveals not only that love can redeem us from our sin but when we encounter grace it transforms us.  Once we have known divine love we become defined by it.  In just one line King and U2 show us the power of God’s grace. 

“But I did what I did before love came to town”

What I did before I encountered grace is gone, forgiven, redeemed.  However, the implication goes even beyond that because, now that love has come, I know better.  I am better.  I am better not because of anything I have done or can do but because of what Christ has done for me.  When love comes to town those who are lost become found.  When love comes to town our most sinful actions are forgiven.  When love comes to town our sin is laid upon the Savior.  When love comes to town we are changed and we will never again be as we were.





A Good Man is Hard to Find

1 04 2008

    

 Can grace be found in violence, in the grotesque, in pain and falleness?  Flannery O’Connor spent her short thirty-nine years answering the question through thirty-three short stories and novels which delved into the full measure of human depravity in difficult, and often frightening, ways.  O’Connor’s work uses shocking, violent, or despairing themes to ultimately reveal to humanity its helplessness apart from the grace of God.  “I have found that violence is strangely capable  of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” she writes.  “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.”

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” a grandmother and her son’s family are ruthlessly killed by an escaped convict while on vacation.  Many struggle with the violent plot because the family and grandmother seem so innocent.   This gruesome scene does not, however, serve as senseless violence.  Beyond the disturbing imagery is a story that makes poignant Christian claims.  The grotesque scenes allow readers “to peer into the souls of the character.”  As O’Connor herself said, “Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief.  This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.”  What it reveals is the total depravity of the human heart and soul apart from God.  What it reveals is the destruction sin brings and the need for an unfathomable grace.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” the moment of grace occurs as the grandmother reaches out toward the convict, calls him one of her children, and then is shot three times.  The grandmother realizes that nothing is going to stop the convict but reaches out anyway.  Unfortunately, the killer is so in love with his falleness that he rejects her love and embraces death.  In this moment, O’Connor highlights the sad reality of so many who hear the grace of Christ but refuse to surrender that which enslaves them.

O’Connor wrote that “grace changes us, and change is painful.”  In “A Good Man”, the grandmother suddenly sees the convict as a creature Jesus loves.  If you read her stories carefully you see see beauty where you otherwise wouldn’t.  You will be encouraged to engage the culture in which you live without surrendering your faith, to honestly address the evil we encounter living in a fallen world, you see the grace of God in the brokenness.  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

So to answer our question: Can grace be found in violence and the grotesque?  O’Connor believed it could.  However, if you do not believe her, look to Genesis and Noah or look to Joshua and the Israelites.  But, perhaps the best place to look is into the face of God as He hung on a cross so that you could become one of His children.