GraceWaves Articles


Fight for Your Faith!

“Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 3

Jude wrote his letter to warn churches against the influence of false teachers, a common problem in the early church and not so uncommon today. These “grumblers, malcontents, loud mouthed boasters” (v. 16) taught a perversion of grace (v. 4) and practiced a licentious lifestyle (v. 7).

In response, Jude appealed to Christians to “contend for the faith.” The word for contend is built on the word for “agony.” The stakes were high. The effort would need to be intense.

An apologist is someone who makes a defense. These early Christian apologists started a long line of intellectual inquiry and engagement that continues today. We need good Christians who will fight for the faith, define it, identify threats to it, and encourage Christians to embrace the teaching of the New Testament. They battle on behalf of the entire church body.

This “corporate” defense of the faith has a personal dimension also, and that is what I want to address in this week’s GraceWaves. Individually we face many challenges to believe. It may come in the form of a clever argument against the resurrection or authority of Scripture.

For example, occasionally I run across someone who has heard or read about The Jesus Seminar, a collection of scholars who have reduced Jesus’ teaching to a few Farmer’s Almanac proverbs and dismiss His divine nature and atonement. They appear to have a presupposition that the miracles are contrived, and if that is your presupposition then it’s easy to see why they think Jesus was just a meandering prophet who benefitted from an incredibly successful marketing campaign.

They are successful at making doubt and denial look like the intelligent option. For the record, let me affirm that equally intelligent and equally qualified people have looked at the same evidence and come away with the conviction that Jesus is who He claimed to be. Gratefully, we have strong apologists who can engage and refute these challenges, and thus help the church at large to embrace “the faith.”

Much more common, however, is the doubt that creeps in because of personal disappointment. You have suffered some hard blows. You are disappointed in a church. Or you just don’t seem to get much out of reading the Bible. Prayers seem hollow. Denominational bickering disgusts you. Doctrines confuse. These affects “your faith.”

I know a great many Christians who, because of long-running doubt, have set the bar so low that they expect little and receive less. You may be one of these Christians. Doubt has lodged in your heart. What can you do?

First, do not embrace doubt as a virtue. Doubt is a challenge to be faced. It is a reality, a “black dog” of the spiritual life. But the fact that it is a common problem does not mean doubt should become a self-justifying excuse. Yes, you may have doubt; and yes, we all do sometimes, but that is all the more reason to contend for your faith! In other words, don’t let the seed of doubt root its way into your soul. Fight it!

How? Remember that faith, and growing faith, is both a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) and a gift of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:9). Ask God to help you. The Spirit loves to remind us and encourage us! That is His task. God does not expect you to manufacture faith on your own. He expects you to exercise it, like a muscle, and grow stronger in the process. If you haven’t worked your faith in a while, start again by calling for the Spirit’s help.

Probably the most important step you can take is to talk to a Christian who appears to have what you desire. Go for coffee and tell this person of your struggles. An honest believer will share his or her own struggles. You’ll discover that you’re not alone. You’ll also have someone to pray for you, and if you can’t pray it’s wonderful to have someone do that for you!

Other practical matters include the usual. Read the Scripture, pray, worship, sing hymns, and lead a life worthy of your calling. Serve and encourage someone else. The Biblical word for faith has a strong element of perseverance in it. See Hebrews 11 for a list of people who kept believing. When challenged, do not fling away from what you know is right and good.

Faith senses subtlety. That is especially important because the world shouts, the ego screams, and God whispers. Sometimes it’s just plain hard to believe. That’s the point where you may want to give up. Let’s change that to the point where you contend for your faith.

In the end, we’re all like the father who came to Jesus pleading for his son’s healing: “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We are all schizophrenic mixtures who need regular reminders that God does help us to believe, and at the same time urges us to fight for our faith. This week’s GraveWaves is your reminder. Contend for your faith.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

November 12, 2017

 

Join Me in Israel and Rome!

"Walk Where Jesus Walked"

Have you ever thought about taking a trip that could deepen your faith? I visited Israel years ago, but the warmth of the experience still stirs my soul.

I remember Bethlehem in particular. An ancient church marks the spot where tradition claims Jesus was born. The entrance is low, about four feet, so I bowed to leave the glaring streets and enter the cool shadows of the basilica. A faint smell of incense lingered and shafts of colored light through stain glass bathed the line of whispering worshipers. I entered the small area where a fourteen-point star marks the birthplace.

The skeptic in me was saying “This site wasn’t identified until Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, visited Bethlehem in the 4th century. There’s no way we can know for sure this was the spot.” But the faith in me answered “Perhaps this isn’t the spot, but you’re not far from it. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”

At that moment the fact that God became man touched my heart and changed me forever.

For many years, I’ve been asked about leading a group to the Holy Land. I’ve always replied to such requests “I’ll do that some day!”

Earlier this year I decided that if I was going to do it I needed to do it! So I’ve partnered with my good friend Dr. Dwight Moody to form E & M Tours. Working with the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies we’ve put together a tour of Israel ending with three days in Rome, May 26-June 10, 2018. My vision is to visit the birthplace of our Christian faith and then to see the glory of the city where the Church blossomed and gave rise to the church universal.

Dwight and I are committed to being your teachers and pastors on this trip. We’ll teach you about the places we’ll visit. We’ll also encourage you to have a transforming, spiritual experience. We aim for the mind and the heart!

Please contact me for more information. You can reply to this email. Or use terryellis@cox.net. You can call me at (225) 405-0797. I’ll be glad to send you a brochure.

You can also view information about our trip by going to www.jcbs.org/find_trip. In the box to the right labeled “I Know My Tour Information” enter the following information: In the “Tour” field enter JC18, in the “Departure Date” field enter 052618, in the field to the right enter x, and in the “Group Leader id #” enter 41969.

Making a pilgrimage is a big commitment, but if not now when? Let me be the catalyst for this significant spiritual experience in your life.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

Fear and Allergies

“Surely God is my salvation. I will trust and not be afraid.” Isaiah 12:2

Ever had allergies? I’ve had minor trouble occasionally, but nothing like as bad as my son, Gregory.

He went through years of sniffling, coughing, and wheezing before we took him to an allergist. You probably know the drill. She performed tests on the little guy to find out what he was allergic to. Turns out it was only two things: indoors and outdoors. So glad we narrowed it down.

What to do? We could encase him in a bubble with filtered air, but I wanted a son not a hamster. Keeping him away from all allergens was simply not possible. Sure we could keep him from rolling in the grass and snorting ragweed, but this was a red-blooded kid who wanted to take on the world, not be excluded from it.

So we decided to put him on a regimen of allergy shots. Now here’s the really interesting thing about allergies and their treatment. You develop a tolerance to an allergen, NOT by avoiding it completely, which is impossible. In the shot you take some of the allergen inside you. You’re exposed to the very thing that causes you distress. Of course, this is all carefully controlled by the doctor so as not to overwhelm you, but to train your body to endure the allergen and not overreact to it. Exposure to the allergen is the point.

That’s about the extent of my knowledge of allergies and their treatment.

Now let’s talk about fear, for I’ve had a lot more experience with that than allergies.

I do wish I could avoid everything that makes me fearful. I wish I could arrange everything in life to be to my liking. I don’t think I’d be cruel or excessive in my expectations. I doubt you’d hardly notice. If I could eliminate all my fear triggers then I would not have any adverse spiritual reactions like, well, fear.

I take this simple plan to God. What does He say? “Fear not.” Someone has said that the Bible has the phrase “fear not” in it 365 times, one for each day of the year. That sounds like one of those biblical “facts” that preaches really well but isn’t 100% accurate. We preachers are given to the occasional embellishment, especially if it’s really hard for you to fact-check it. I’m not sure “fear not” appears 365 times, and I’m not going to take the time to comb through a concordance and count. Let’s just agree that “fear not” is in the Bible a lot.

That sounds promising! If I take God at His word, He does not want me to fear. So I turn from Him and His reassuring words to find that the objects of my fear remain stubbornly a part of my life. They’re all there. Just like ragweed. Can’t get rid of them. And that’s the point.

My fears are like allergies. God treats my fears by allowing them to remain and asking me to trust Him to be stronger than my fears. By facing my fears, I learn to live in faith. It’s the only way to grow in faith.

I cry out “But if you just removed the things that cause my fear then I could be done with them!” God calmly answers, “Life is not like that. You will have to trust that I am with you and will take care of you. You must have faith.”

Faith. Faith is such a multi-faceted word, so highly nuanced that the Greek word requires multiple English words to translate it. It can mean belief, as in a certain content. We need to believe the right things about God and confront the irrational and harmful ideas. This is the cognitive component of faith. “I believe in God the Father…in Jesus Christ His Son…in the Holy Spirit” etc. This is faith as belief.

Faith can also mean trust, and here we really home in on the way to deal with fear. The Bible does contain many examples of God’s removing the fear triggers. Parting of the waters, protection from enemies, stilling of storms, healing of diseases, casting out demons. All of these are in the Bible to show us what God can do.

Now here is the most difficult part of this little devotional. Removing the fear trigger is the least of God’s miracles. Providing courage born of deep and abiding trust is God’s real goal for us. He wants us to have the spiritual muscle to keep believing in Him even when the evidence may look a little thin, or even absent. In fact, what God really wants for us is our trust that is completely divorced from physical evidence. He desires that we believe in Him based solely on the certainty of His presence and promises to never leave us and to take care of every need.

I’m grateful for my pastor, Rev. Brady Whitton of FUMC Baton Rouge, for stirring these thoughts today in his sermon. He gave a special application that really spoke to me that I want to pass along to you.

He asked us to think about things that we want to do for God that make us fearful. We’re just afraid to try them, implicitly thinking that God might not come through for us. So we stay safely on the shores and never launch into the deep.

But the fear we feel at the outset of a new commitment is precisely the point. If we don’t attempt things that take us beyond our comfort we never know how powerful and dependable God is. Thus God’s response to our fear is not to remove it, but simply to ask us to have faith in Him.

What is the commitment you’ve struggled with? Has fear kept you from making the attempt? If you’re waiting for God to remove your fear while you stand on the shore, you’re in for an endless wait. You won’t get stronger, better, or less fearful by standing still.

So go ahead and make the decision you’ve known you needed to make for a long time. Take action that demonstrates your faith. Life is full of uncertainties, storms, and terrible chapters. God is over all. Trust. Have faith. Fear not.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

November 5, 2017

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Ready to be Healed?

“When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” John 5:6

Are you familiar with the word bilious? The first time I heard it, I wasn’t sure what it meant. Something to do with bile, I supposed. Later I learned from the dictionary that it means “relating to or containing bile,” and “a sickly yellowish color” At least I had the bile part right.

The woman who used the word was an elderly lady in a former church who was describing for me the inadequacies of a color that had been used in her Sunday School classroom. I had gone to visit her during December. She was an eccentric widow, and I thought a visit might cheer her during a sensitive time of the year. Somehow the discussion swerved into paint color and with great theatrical flourish, she pronounced her disdain. “Bilious!” she said. “Absolutely bilious!” She used the word once more during my 15 minute visit. She was nothing if not focused.

I thought of her recently when reading John’s account of Jesus’ healing the crippled man beside the pool (5:2-18). For thirty-eight years he had been there, waiting for the miracle that never came. When Jesus found him, He asked a question that sounds very unusual. “Do you want to be healed?”

Why ask that question? Was He serious? Who wouldn’t want to be healed? To have a chance to walk, to rid yourself of the calluses, the pressure sores, to begin to live a more normal life? Of course he wanted to be healed!

The question does sound ludicrous until you realize that the Gospel of John moves on two levels: physical and spiritual. Physical events signify spiritual realities. This is true of any of the gospels to some extent, but John makes it an overarching theme.

So much is this the case that John actually never uses the word “miracle” in his work. The Greek word for miracle is dunamis, from which we get the English word dynamite. In this understanding the mighty works of Jesus were power displays, which they certainly were, of course.

John wanted a different focus, however. Instead of the word miracle he used the word “sign.” The miraculous event, and John recorded seven of these, were signs that pointed to a spiritual truth. The healing of the man by the pool is the third of the seven signs in John.

So why did Jesus asked the question, do you want to be healed? The word “healed” here has another level of meaning beyond simply physical restoration. In fact, in this story you find three different words for healing. Two of them refer to a physical healing. This word in verse 6, however, refers also to being whole.

So Jesus was not asking merely if the man wanted to be rid of his disease. He was asking if he wanted to be whole, complete, restored, balanced. “Do you want to be well?” See the difference?

What if Jesus asked you that question? Are you ready to be healed?

Many times we can become very comfortable with our infirmities, physical or spiritual. Instead of making the genuine effort to deal with the problem we prefer the attention that comes from having the problem. Or we fail to see a problem at all.

Take my friend with the affinity for the word bilious. She had developed over the years a reputation as a rather prickly person with a superior attitude. Consequently, she had few real friends and was rather awkward in most social settings, though she certainly would not have recognized this. In a kind of etymological karma, a fourth level meaning of the word bilious is “having a peevish disposition, ill-humor.” That’s genuine irony.

Imagine her reaction if I had said the following: “Mrs. Smith (obviously not her real name), you are creating a great many problems for yourself by looking down on other people and having a generally negative outlook on life. Faith gives you the opportunity to have real joy and a divine optimism. God has surrounded you with people who genuinely love you. If you looked at His blessings, instead of all the things that perturb you, then you might not be so fixated on paint color.” She would probably have looked at me like I was an alien, with a bilious skin tone.

Do you want to be healed? We all need to hear and answer this question honestly. Before Jesus can deliver us from the real problems that beset us, we have to acknowledge their presence. True spiritual growth means honestly looking at the spiritual handicaps we use to keep God at bay. Frankly, it’s far easier to accommodate, excuse, and defend our spiritual shortcomings than go through the painful process of saying, “God, I’m sick and I desperately need to be healed.”

Personally, on a physical level I would love to be rid of my occasional sciatic nerve pain, the aches in my right knee, tinnitus in my left ear, and the irritating eye problems associated with aging. If God healed each one of those, would I be whole?

No. Not until I asked for His help in getting past my fears, resentments, anger, and self-pity. These are the spiritual obstacles that are so much more serious than any physical problem I’ve ever had. I need help each day with these. I turn to God and say, “I want to be whole” and He helps those spiritual challenges have a little less hold on me.

So if you are tired of dealing with the same spiritual problems in life, perhaps it’s time to have a talk with Jesus. What is it that holds you back? What is your real problem? What sin regularly breaks you? Is it a habit of thought? Or doubt? Do you struggle with fear, anger, resentment, and self-pity? How about pride, guilt, shame, etc?

The Holy Spirit can illuminate the darkest corners of your life and will do so gently. God can show you what needs to be done. Listen as He asks the question, “do you want to be healed?”

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

October 22, 2017

Loved

“We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

Let’s think about God’s love this week. Nothing could possibly be more important than the fact that God loves us. Nothing.

Think of the two options. If God doesn’t love us then we are absolutely lost, facing an eternal and hopeless fate. An implacably angry God, or a even a distant, uncaring God sends a shiver through my soul.

But if God does love us, then the clouds of hopelessness part, a shining eternity dawns, and a smiling God walks with us. God’s love infuses each day, and every moment, with divine optimism. We’re not alone, and we are deeply loved by the Creator.

The Bible is quite clear about God’s love for us. Whatever you believe about these ancient texts you have to at least admit they portray a caring God who loves His creation and especially the pinnacle of that creation: you. From Creation through the Cross and beyond the pages practically shout that God loves us.

But how do you know? It’s a fair question, one I’ve been asked innumerable times. I get it. Every hardship in life seems to be an a priori argument against the love of God. If God loves us then why are so many bad things happening? Why do we suffer if God cares? Anyone who has given ten minutes of serious consideration to eternal matters has wondered. How do we know God love us?

I have a story that proves to me beyond a shadow of doubt that God loves me.

A couple of months ago I conducted a wedding in Alabama. The bride is a friend of Lauren’s, my daughter, so she had been asked to be in the ceremony. My granddaughter Emily Grace also went, for girls tend to love these flowery affairs, and the bride is actually Emily Grace’s godmother. So there’s the lineup.

Lauren, Emily Grace and I drove over on a Friday, and had the rehearsal for the joyous affair the next day. As my daughter was a bridesmaid, this meant an all-day commitment on Saturday to getting hair and make-up and dresses and pictures, etc.

An aside here. Men have such an advantage when it comes to weddings, one for which I am deeply grateful. We rent a tux, have someone show us how to wear a cummerbund and put on cuff links an hour before, and basically just do what we’re told during the service. Very little thinking goes into a wedding for the men, which is usually a very good thing for the women.

Back to the story.

The last thing a 4 ½ year old needs to do for an entire Saturday before a wedding is be in the middle of a gaggle of young women who have been aggressively dieting for at least a month prior to the nuptials, and may have even gone through something akin to the weight-cut Conor McGregor endured prior to his last match. Again, if you need 6-8 hours to get ready for an event you’re likely to be just a tad anxious about your appearance, tending perhaps to compare yourself unfavorably to others, and likely to be impatient with the constant flow of questions from a naturally inquisitive little girl. I humbly suggest the slimmest possibility of just a wee bit of crankiness that could be magnified by said little girl.

My solution was to have Emily Grace with me for much of the day. We were staying at a country club so we walked around and watched the men play golf for a little while. A playground was ours alone and she climbed her first “rock wall,” slid down the slide, swung in the swings. We threw sticks and pine cones in the lake and ran up a hill until we fell down laughing. We went back to our room and watched cartoons.

After the wedding we made a brief appearance at the reception, then while her mom and dad stayed to visit and enjoy the entertainment we went back to the room. I bathed her, dried her golden hair, and dressed her for bed that she would not sleep in for several hours (she’s not the best sleeper!). I told her a story or two, then put a movie on for her as I began to read. Laying there side-by-side, the day grew quiet and still. I began to snooze. She was still going strong, though quiet.

Then through the dreamy swirls of my early rest I heard her say “I love you Gandy.” That was it. That was all. She didn’t break from her movie. We had not been talking. She was just thinking about her day and a drowsy granddaddy beside her, and life was good.

And I knew at that very moment God loves me.

Many of the most tender “love verses” and “love stories” in the New Testament come from John’s pen, particularly in his first letter. We think that John was an older man when he wrote this letter, and I like to think that in the warm embers of his life, after the fires of zeal had cooled a bit, John had a very clear vision of what God is. He wrote “God is love” twice. He wrote about what God’s love compels us to do and to feel. It casts out fear, creates confidence, enables our joy.

Then he wrote “We love because He first loved us” (4:19). That’s important. All “loves” are a reflection of the original, singular love of God. Each love is a reminder of God’s very nature. So when we feel loved, in any of its limitless expressions, we are feeling God’s love. God’s love is not a theory, or an idea in a vacuum. Somehow it has to become concrete.

Emily Grace’s love for her Gandy was an open window to heaven, a lens through which I was reminded of a smiling God who loves us both and took joy in the day we shared together. For that moment she was the incarnation. She loves because God loves. I felt God’s love through her love.

I want you to pause and remember a time when you felt loved. There were no doubts. All of life distilled to that moment when you felt loved, and life was good and right. I don’t care how long ago it was, that feeling is something God wants you to cling to. He loves you.

We don’t always feel this way, of course. Life gets too noisy sometimes. But remember. That moment when you felt loved was God’s touch, His assurance. You are deeply, eternally, joyfully loved.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

October 15, 2017

One Day at a Time

“When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another ‘what is it?’” Exodus 16:15

Leslie recently said to me, “I was hoping by this age to have a few more things settled.” It reminded me of a similar line from an elderly lady who said she thought that life would become clearer and even easier as she aged. “It hasn’t,” she said, “and I’m soooo disappointed!”

When we’re children we’re sure that by the time we’re the age of an older sibling, or cousin, or whatever, that everything will be so much easier. I can recall a few such times in my life. When I was 6, to be able to stay up late seemed like the greatest thing I could hope for. When I was 11, looking ahead to changing classrooms every hour promised relief from the tedium of sitting in the same room all day. At age 15, I looked forward to driving. And girls. Both, I suppose, provided thrills but a great deal of extra expense.

I think the elderly lady and Leslie (who is no doubt much younger and much more thrilling) are giving voice to the same yearning. We all sense that things will be better in the future, and when they’re not we’re soooo disappointed!

The fact of the matter is that each chapter of life comes with its share of unanticipated trouble. Reach one milestone and you find that there’s simply another mile to be walked. Perhaps the single clearest and most overlooked of Jesus’ sayings is “let the days trouble be sufficient for the day.” Not only was He teaching us not to worry about the future, He was also reminding us of the uncomfortable truth that each day has trouble.

Surely what I’ve described applies to the people of Israel after they left Egypt. What could possibly be better than freedom? Generations had lived and died in slavery. I doubt it was possible to even imagine change when the lash had driven them for hundreds of years.

Yet God showed up. Through Moses He set His people free. With whatever they could carry they headed east into the sunrise of hope. Did this solve all of their problems? Of course not. Each new chapter simply provides new pages for the same old messiness of life. The exact expression changes, but the underlying cause is always there.

We recall how God rescued them. The plagues opened the door. The parting of the sea closed it behind them. Guidance to clean water satisfied their thirst. Powerful miracles! Yet the trouble kept cropping up. They were running out of food.

And that brings us to the manna. Remember the details? The word manna literally means “what is it?” The hungry people came out of their tents one morning, found a flaky white substance covering the ground, and said (in Hebrew) man hu? Literally, “what is it?” Moses replied that it was breakfast, and lunch, and supper. It was the bread God had provided for them.

As people are wont to do they’ve tried to figure out for millennia “what it is” was. I’m not interested in that. The most intriguing thing about “what it is” is that God provided it daily and you could only collect enough for the day’s meals, about an omer per person we’re told. What is an omer, you ask? It’s a tenth of a ephah, of course. All right, I’m teasing. It’s about 2 quarts.

AND you could not collect more than two quarts per person per day. I absolutely would have tried that. I like to plan ahead, save for a rainy day, plan for the worst, etc. That strategy is good in saving for retirement, for example, but I’ve learned that as a broad rule it doesn’t deepen my faith in God. It only magnifies my illusion of control. Trouble always finds a way to irrupt, even when I think I’ve covered all the bases. People in particular, and life in general, have an irritating habit of not cooperating with my plans.

To foil all the long-term planners like me, God created manna with a built-in expiration date of one day (except for what you collected on Friday morning which lasted two days). All the forward thinking Israelites discovered that yesterday’s manna dramatically spoiled overnight. It bred worms and smelled foul. If you’re like me, I know exactly what you’re thinking: “Tupperware!” It would not have mattered. God didn’t want them storing up.

Why? If they had enough to last a week, they would not have relied on God each day. He said He would provide, and He forced them to trust. And for forty years God was more reliable than Tupperware or even refrigeration.

My two greatest vertical questions are “Am I alone?” and “Does anyone care?” I’m not talking about family or society. Those are horizontal and pretty clearly answered. I’m talking about the eternal questions, the ones I ask the quiet night sky, the 2:00 am questions when the world, and the world in my head, gets quiet enough for me to hear them.

Manna answers both of them. The Bible is God’s answer, repeatedly in different stories, across history, cultures, and languages. God is consistently saying, “Terry, I’m with you, and I will provide for you.”

Whatever you think about the Bible or religion or spirituality in general, you really can’t dispute that these are the answers we find to the important questions we ask. God is with you and He does provide for you.

“One day at a time” is one of those sayings that can get irritating to people that claim to want real and deep answers. But the reason “one day at a time” has such staying power is that it sums up a powerful truth. We live one day at a time whether we want to or not. We can drag the past after us if we choose. Or we can run after the mist that is tomorrow. But we’re going to do it one day at a time.

Life does get easier, more settled, and clearer when we decide to live with trust in God. We don’t need manna any more. We have plenty of food. And Tupperware. We do need a God who can take care of us. We do need a God who is trustworthy. And we have that kind of God. He simply does not disappoint us.

So we rise each day with a prayer that says “I don’t know what today will bring, but God’s got it.” He does. Trust.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

October 1, 2017

My Daughter the Catholic

“There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” Ephesians 4:4-6

Lauren, my daughter, will be confirmed as a Catholic this coming Tuesday and receive the Eucharist. After nearly a year or more of prayer, discussions with a trusted friend, and RCIA classes she’s made this decision.

I’ve enjoyed our own discussions about this change. We’ve spent many a lunch hour parsing this and that. As usual, Lauren has been thorough. When she had her first confession earlier this week I asked if she’d made a spread sheet. Her texted reply “Yup.” Not sure if she was kidding or not.

Lauren has always had a Catholic soul. When she was perhaps 6 years old or so she asked me if there were Baptist nuns because she would like to become one. She’s an avid reader and enjoys finely tuned arguments and insights. Catholic theology appeals to her as does the liturgy and beautiful architecture and art of many of the churches.

More than a few people have asked me, some with concern, “how do you feel about this?” Sometimes I respond, “I feel good about it. The Catholic Church is rumored to be Christian!”

Seriously, she’s simply gone through a familiar process that I’ve witnessed in many people over the years. Frankly, it’s been fun to watch, and it’s given me the opportunity to reflect on this journey of how faith begins and grows.

For better or worse, we get our first theology from our parents. In good circumstances this means that the child who was fed, changed, loved, and praised will more likely understand that God is caring, loving, forgiving, and smiling. Take a child to church and she will begin to nurture the concept of places, times, and things that are sacred. Most importantly, live before him a warm and genuine faith and he will know intuitively that faith is important, even though he has little concept of the particulars.

The dark side of this truth, of course, is that a child raised in tension, violence, neglect, etc. will have a trust deficiency that extends into her theology. By no means is the battle lost. We have a remarkable spiritual plasticity. The Spirit will continue to work in her life, bringing people and influences to bear. His life may well turn out to be a powerful testimony of discovering the God of grace. But let’s not underestimate the impact of those early years.

Whatever spiritual software was installed in early life, all of us go through a time of making an inherited faith our own. The child, usually as a young adult, is likely to go through a time of reflection on matters of faith, which, by the way, may coincide with or result in a period neglect.

Faith can appear a bit obsolete in the face of glittering technology. Also it’s easy to parody the church, or religion, or a particular denomination and set up a straw man that’s pretty easy to blow over. Add to this the contemporary popularity of agnosticism and it’s little wonder that many of our young people go through periods of doubt.

I can’t begin to count the number of times parents or grandparents came to me in high anxiety about a questioning adult child. The counsel that seemed to work best with them is to follow the example of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. We have to speculate here, but while the father may have had many a restless night of concern, he didn’t travel to the far country to drag his son home. He let it happen.

Anything short of allowing and even encouraging the period of reflection is simply a descent into control, the antithesis of grace. Let it happen.

Now admittedly, if Lauren had come out of this time and told me she wanted to be Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim then I would have had some much more serious adjustments to make. But I can assure you I would have accepted it. Acceptance always brings me into the realm of grace.

Change happens in all areas of life. Faith is seldom static. Where you are today in matters of faith is probably somewhat different from where you were five or ten years ago. This doesn’t mean you changed denominations or religions, but I hope you’ve discovered new aspects of your faith and new horizons to explore. If not, try reading someone who’s got a different take on faith. You’ll likely find something that helps yours.

I’ve had many positive spiritual influences in my life. Various denominations have contributed to my faith. I’m very grateful for my Southern Baptist heritage and the ongoing blessings of The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the United Methodist Church, and other traditions I get to visit in my present calling.

And whenever I worship in a Catholic Church I’m returning to the tradition that started it all. I remember all the ways it has blessed and continues to bless me.

In my 35-year career as a Baptist pastor I enjoyed wonderful relationships with the priests, monsignors, and bishops in the areas I served. While in Houma, Bishop Warren Boudreaux reached out to me to welcome me to Houma. I was a young man, fairly recently out of seminary and had written him a letter introducing myself and offering to take him to lunch. He called a few days later, thanked me for my letter, and then added “But Reverend Ellis, I am the bishop in this area.” (he paused for effect, while my heart skipped a few beats, before finishing) “I will take you to lunch!” Such a warm and wonderful spirit.

Lauren was raised to respect and love the Catholic Church. She was born in Baton Rouge, lived in Houma, and Mobile for most of her early years, so she was raised in heavily Catholic areas. I taught her and my son that the Catholic Church was our mother church. Without her no one would have so carefully defined our faith, preserved the scripture, or been such a powerful force for good in the world. I would tell her, and the churches I served, “I didn’t always agree with my mother, but I always loved her. And I simply never cared to focus on areas of disagreement, for the love was so deep. So it is with my regard for the Catholic Church.”

I went with Lauren to St. Aloysius Catholic Church this morning. The church was quite full, and before the service began people were kneeling in prayer. I was in a congregation of hundreds of people for whom faith was obviously genuine, warm, and very important. The music was moving, the homily meaningful, the baptisms of babies was endearing. I felt the love of the Father, the presence of Christ, and the touch of the Spirit. If I’d gone there to look for things I didn’t like or didn’t agree with I suppose I’d found those things. I could have done the same thing in the Methodist church I attended earlier that morning. But I went with an open heart and mind, and I found what I was looking for. You always find what you look for.

After a time of looking Lauren found her way the Catholic Church. I’m proud of her, and I think I truly understand. I have a sense when I walk through those doors that I’ve come home, at least to visit. I always leave with a stirring in my soul and deep gratitude for what the Church has done for me.

Lauren will be attending Our Lady of Mercy. I’m happy for that church. She’ll make a good Catholic because she’s a good Christian.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

September 10, 2017

 

Is This Honorable?

“Whatever is honorable, think on this.” Philippians 4:8

Have you ever been in a sanctuary alone? I have often. Having been a pastor for 35 years there were times when it seemed like I was contractually obligated to stay until everyone else went home. Kind of like the captain not leaving the ship until everyone else is rescued. The minister’s family loathes this, of course, because it means being last in line at the Piccadilly. But often it comes with the territory.

Sunday nights were my favorite time to be there alone. In several churches some of the light switches were in the balcony. I’d turn off the lights, the glow of the exit lights were the only illumination, then I’d sit there alone. The rush of the day had settled (the Sabbath as a day of rest? Guffaw!!!!). I felt God’s presence in the stillness of that dark, quiet, holy place. Stillness is the key. To know God you have to be still., then you become aware of what has always been surrounding you.

The main goal of the life of faith is to have that sense of God’s presence continually. There’s nothing really special about the sanctuary in the sense that God is more real there than, say, while I’m driving on the interstate. It’s just that when everything quiets down around you, and within you, then your sense of faith detects God’s presence. And that is a wonderful feeling!

Is this possible? It has to be, of course. THE great spiritual mistake is to separate the spiritual life from the rest of life. What we do on Sunday has to make a difference in the way we live on Monday and throughout the rest of the week. But how do we do that?

In one of my favorite verses, Paul wrote that there are certain things we’re to focus on (Phil. 4:8). One of these is a slippery Greek word that I like to translate as honorable. The word has in it the meaning of holiness and nobility. Many years ago I read where someone described it as the experience of a worshiper entering a temple. It’s the feeling I have in my sanctuaries alone. It’s the feeling I need to cultivate throughout every day.

Of course, we live every moment in God’s presence though we often forget. This should be a great comfort, but for some it’s a terrible threat and it is so, unfortunately, because some members of my profession use it in that way.

It was a notion well established in the Ellis spiritual psyche. I recall my mother saying she wouldn’t go see a certain type of movie because she didn’t want Jesus to see her there if He decided to return midway through.

Even more sobering was the occasional evangelist who would troop through our church for the summer revivals and remind us that the judgment was going to be a time when our lives were played out on something like a great screen for all creation to witness. As a kid I was engaging in certain activities I didn’t want anyone knowing about, much less all of creation. It was vividly moving even though it constituted biblical malpractice.

Now I tread carefully here. An external standard has its place in our conduct. Not stealing, for example, because it breaks a commandment is a good reason not to steal. Not wanting to disappoint or hurt someone else is a good reason to live in a particular way. Having a code of conduct or a set of laws and standards can be a good motive. It just can’t be THE motive.

Ultimately I live in an honorable way because I’ve been transformed from within, not conformed from without. Grace is a much more powerful and permanent motive than law ever could be. Paul stated it starkly, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” So I’ll value and use the external braces while I strive to develop the inner strength.

Which brings us back to honor. I can and should walk through life with a constant sense of being in God’s presence. The world becomes His sanctuary, which it is of course. Every place becomes “thin” as I begin to sense to spiritual world pressing around me.

This sense that we’re walking through the sanctuary should affect all of our conduct, speech, and thinking. We can’t leave anything out. Living honorably means that I’m not going to use certain language, or engage in certain activities, or embrace certain thoughts and ways of thinking. In every area I can ask “would I do, say, or think _______ if I was in God’s sanctuary?” If the answer is no, then I shouldn’t do, say, or think that in my home, office, or anywhere else.

Embracing a standard often means risking being labeled prudish, puritanical, moralistic, and repressed. The world is much more comfortable with no standards at all. And failing to meet the standard invites a gleeful condemnation of “hypocrite!” And subsequently the implied or outright suggestion that because no one keeps the standards perfectly we should just get rid of all of them.

My failure to meet the standard is no reflection on the standard. God is still God, right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. And the fact that it’s sometimes hard to precisely define right and wrong doesn’t mean we should give up trying.

How different would our society be if we simply reintroduced the idea of honor? What would change if we all regularly asked ourselves “is this honorable?” I believe we’d have a lot less hatred, a lot more compassion, and a lot more peace. We’d be willing to listen better, and less urgent with our replies. We’d be more still and less rushed. All of this would happen because we’d become more aware of God’s wonderful presence.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

September 4, 2017

Show Grace to Everyone

“Let your forbearance be made known to all.” Philippians 4:5

When was the last time you used the word “forbearance?” Have you ever used the word? It’s not in the typical vocabulary. It sounds a little old. Perhaps a little churchy. Have you ever said to your spouse during a vigorous discussion “I am forbearing you?” Probably not. Trust me. It doesn’t help anything.

One of my all-time favorite passages of scripture is Philippians 4:4-8. In fact, the whole book is one of my favorites and has been for a very long time. I remember Bob Justus, the associate pastor of the church I grew up in, saying that if you’re ever feeling down, just read the book of Philippians a few times. I was probably 12 or thirteen when I heard him say that. It stuck with me. And yes, this letter really does help lift your spirits.

Now back to forbearance and also a little lesson in Greek and translation. Greek is a wonderfully complex language with layers and layers of nuance and verb tenses that make it beautifully fitting for scripture and ancient philosophy but often difficult to translate into English. Any translation is more art than science, and the challenge for any translator is to understand deeply the language of origin AND the language into which it is translated. In other words, it’s often not an exact correspondence where this Greek word always means this English word. That’s where the art comes in.

In this rich passage Paul used a word that the venerable RSV scribes translated as “forbearance.” KJV translates it as moderation. Others translate it as gentleness, considerate, kindness, and gracious kindness. Whenever you see this kind of range of translation you know that the underlying Greek word is a bit thorny.

All of these translations help. It’s a very positive word, full of good spiritual depth. If you move through the day with gentleness, kindness, grace, and consideration then you’re very likely to have a very good day. And if you cultivate these wonderful spiritual emotions then the people around you are likely to have a very good day also. And that brings us to my translation of the word: show grace to everyone.

Show grace to everyone. That’s surely what Jesus had in mind when He said we are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and all those other irritating teachings that at times we either ignore or wish He hadn’t said.

The Christian faith has a universality to it that simply cannot be ignored. I have no problem whatsoever loving people that love me or agree with me. In fact, I generally admire their wisdom!

However, I have a real problem loving the white supremacist, for example. To conceive of yourself as superior to another human being, let alone an entire race, is a concept so anti-Christian that we’re stunned when we see it. Yet it’s real, active, and it’s very hard for me to love the people that embrace it.

But if I’m to take seriously the meaning of this Greek word, then I must show grace to the white supremacist.

That’s what Daryl Davis decided to do. A black man from Chicago, Daryl has decided to talk to members of the KKK. To date some 200 or so have left the klan because of Daryl Davis. He never set out to convert anyone from the klan, he just wanted to talk to them and ask them a simple question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Wonder of wonders, when they got to know Daryl, they liked him.

Why? He showed grace. He didn’t respond to their hatred with hatred. He didn’t try to shout them down. He didn’t attack them. He didn't do the things that tend to create a dozen rebels for every convert. When you meet anger with anger you just multiply anger.I just read a clever idea last week. Grace overcomes racism. So what we need is gracism.

Grace changes us in ways that laws, public policies, protests, and even preaching never will. Each of these has its place of course, but our main problem is always spiritual in nature. Always. So grace is the answer. Always.

So here’s where forbearance can get really irritating. I’ll wager most of my reading audience has applauded what I’ve written so far. I doubt I have too many white supremacists among my subscribers. We can all energetically agree that we should be against racism. They should apply grace, note hate. But applying grace cuts both ways. If you hate the white supremacist, what good is that?

Show grace to everyone. It begins within. Unclench your fists. Open your hands. Receive grace and begin living in peace. It’s absolutely futile to tell someone to be loving when they’re filled with loathing, especially self-loathing. So let God’s grace work deeply into your soul. You’re forgiven. Accepted. Celebrated. Loved. Let that sink in.

Then look at the people around you. Think of how different the world would be if we simply stopped hating. That’s a good place to start. Just stop hating. Those raw emotions you feel when someone says or does something you disagree with, you may not call that hate, but that’s what I’m aiming at.

Personally, it’s enormously difficult for me not to feel something, but I can choose not to embrace it. I can choose to consider how to let gentleness, kindness, consideration, and forbearance be made known. I firmly believe that’s how I move away from hate and toward love.

So here’s how forbearance might look like: Does the racist make your blood boil? Show them grace. Are you angry with someone whose politics are different from yours? Show them grace. Do you hate someone who is tearing down a statue? Or someone who wants the statue to remain? Show them grace. Does someone have a different point of view from you on the unrest in our country? Show them grace.
Are you more likely to point out the splinter or log in another person’s eye before you look in the mirror? Show grace.

Translation is difficult. That word forbearance is linguistically slippery. But I think I know what it looks like. I’m going to try to do better in showing grace to all people. Especially the ones who are different from me.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
August 21, 2017

Grrrrumbling!

“Do everything without grumbling.” Philippians 2:14

Grumble. It’s onomatopoetic. The first two letters sound like a growl. Grrrr. Many people grumble their way through life, always growling about this or that, or this AND that. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. You might be the kind of person I’m talking about. Grumblers are everywhere.

In one of my churches many years ago was an elderly fellow I’ll call Sam. Sam had been in that church since its founding I believe. He had served it faithfully in many, many ways. But he was a grumbler. That man could pick out the gnat of a complaint and grumble about it to anyone who would listen and to a lot of people that didn’t care to listen. He was a walking incarnation of a chronic growl.

One time Sam was driving with a good friend of mine and carrying on about the general decline of the world, one of those “going to hell in a hand-basket” kind of talks. So engrossed was he in the constellation of gripes that he passed up the exit they were to take. When my friend could get in a word, he said “Mr. Sam, where are we going?” Sam, completely oblivious to the real problem at hand energetically replied “We’re going down! That’s where we’re going! We’re going down!”

Now eventually Sam turned around and got to where he was supposed to be, and I’m quite sure he’s arrived at his heavenly home where he’s supposed to be. And he could have gotten to both places without all the useless complaining along the way.

All of us can get to the place we’re supposed to be in life without grumbling, and grumbling usually keeps us or delays us from getting there. That’s why the Bible so often warns us against grumbling, complaining, and arguing.

The people of Israel grumbled when Moses was leading them out of bondage. It got on his nerves too. He called them a stiff-necked people, and in Deuteronomy Moses himself sounds a little bit cranky, no doubt due to all the grumbling he had to put up with.

The New Testament presents many warnings against grumbling. Jesus told His disciples to stop it (John 6:43). Peter and James included a prohibition against it in their letters. Perhaps most memorably, Paul, when listing various sins, noted especially the grumbling Israelites and that some of them were “destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). All grumblers should be grateful that God has modified His methods.

Grumbling is such a way of life for many people that books have been written about it.  Robert Hughes in The Culture of Complaint was one of the first authors to address the problem. He noted our cultural tendency to fix our dissatisfaction on someone else or something else. We have a penchant for making ourselves victims. We decide that our happiness or joy is someone’s responsibility. “We have met the enemy, and it is someone else,” is our mantra. The problem could not possibly be with us. So we complain, convinced that if everyone played their role according to our expectations then we would be happy. “Just do what I want, and you won’t hear me complain.” Ugh.

We have a real uphill battle here. Grumbling is a mental habit that becomes fixed over time so that our default setting becomes complaint. Neurologists, especially those who are interested in behavior modification, have a principle that goes like this: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Every thought, every mental habit is the result of a series of synaptic responses, a mental construct. It’s literally a neuronal pathway that fires again and again in your brain.

Think of a field of tall grass. You walk across it the first time and you bend the blades in such a way that you make something of a pathway. The next time you cross that same field you’re likely to follow the same path. Eventually the grass gets worn down so that the pathway is obvious, and in fact you wouldn’t consider taking a different path because it would mean going through tall grass again.

Your brain is like that field of tall grass. Your mental habits, good and bad, are well-worn pathways through your gazillion neurons. If you’re a complainer, then you have a neural habit that will be very hard to break. The same is true if you’re a worrier, or if you struggle with fear, or resentment, etc. etc. The stakes are huge. One recent article I read noted unsurprisingly that grumbling wires your brain to be anxious and depressed.

Which brings us to the solution. Prayer and meditation also form neural pathways. A quiet time forces us to walk through the grass field in a different way. Practiced daily, even for only about 10 minutes a day, we’ll develop new ways of thinking that divert us from the well-worn path of grumbling and help us to find genuine serenity. Try it and in as little as two weeks you’ll notice a change in your outlook.

Now this is absolutely a classic case of a battle that will not stay won. It’s going to be a daily fight. Those pathways of complaint never go away. We have to engage consciously, daily, even moment by moment in the kind of spiritual practices that keep us from becoming grumblers.

THE chief spiritual antidote to grumbling is gratitude. Gratitude lists are pure spiritual gold. If you find yourself grumbling, try listing three gratitudes for every grumble. Pretty soon your complaints will diminish and you will absolutely find yourself to be more at peace with yourself and this world that just won’t cooperate with you. You’ll discover that life isn’t an endless series of problems to be solved, endured, or complained about. It’s truly amazing how much better your life will be when you unclench your fists and just open your hands to receive God’s grace.

I had to speak to Mr. Sam about his grumbling one time, and to his lasting credit he came back to me and told me a story about how he was going to try to change. He said he kept a folder of newspaper and magazine stories that outraged him (I’m not making this up). He said he realized that folder was just giving him ammunition to grumble, so he decided to throw it away. He did, though his pathways were pretty well-worn and he still tended to default to complaint. It was life-long habit.

Do you have a folder (real or mental) that you need to throw away? Has grumbling taken up too much of your life? Take seriously the scriptural prohibition against it. Understand that modern neuroscience has literally demonstrated the wisdom of ancient scripture. Stop growling. Keep praying. Learn to be quiet and still. Your grumbles will turn to gratitude.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

August 13, 2017