GraceWaves Articles


The Chain of Faith

“We walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7

Faith. It’s a mysterious, wonderful, puzzling word. A stumbling block for some, a laughingstock for others, a lifeline for many. What is faith?

Let’s start with an analogy. We have five senses, or faculties. You’re using the sense of sight right now to read this, as I am to type it. My air conditioner is running, and I hear the blower. That is the sense of hearing. I can’t smell anything in particular right now, but a few minutes ago my Schnauzer came in to see me and her breath smelled like dead fish. The sense smell, unfortunately. I’m using the sense of touch to feel the keyboard beneath my fingertips and the cool air of the fan on my bare arms. I’m sipping a Diet Mt. Dew as I tap out this GraceWaves because it appeals to my sense of taste. Five senses. I use them to gather information about the physical world around me.

Very simply, faith is the sense I use to gather information about the spiritual world that surrounds and weaves its way through me.

Here, we are at the very heart of the belief vs. unbelief challenge. We are born into a physical world that is very obvious, can be both very comforting and very harmful. We are accustomed to using our physical senses from our first moments of consciousness to survive and to learn. Not surprisingly, the physical senses come very naturally to us.

By contrast the spiritual world is whispery and subtle. It’s no less real. In fact, it is the ultimate and final reality. Everything we know about the physical world tells us that entropy wins eventually in one form or another and all comes to nothing. The spiritual world we “sense” through faith is the real reality. This is Plato’s point when he taught that the physical world is a temporary and flawed reflection, or shadow, of the true spiritual reality.

The point is we can be lulled into a habit of being dependent wholly on the physical senses and become convinced that the physical world is all there is. This is why a spiritual experience is so often referred to in terms of awakening, seeing, or becoming aware. It’s religion’s version of The Matrix. Just take the red pill, and you see real things you might have sensed were true. That’s faith.

Like the physical senses, the sense of faith can atrophy from lack of use. That’s why for a deeply convinced atheist, the notion of faith seems incomprehensible and incompatible with intellect. I say this without superiority or condescension, but they do not have faith because they have not used it. They have chosen to rely exclusively on information they gather from the five physical senses. So really they start with a very closed presupposition that they won’t believe in spiritual matters until the empirical evidence is clear to them.

The Bible tells us that faith is a gift from God, and that He has put within all of us the sense of eternity. When we use faith we awaken and become aware. That is why to a person of faith the idea of living by the physical senses alone is incomprehensible and incompatible with intellect.

Both sides do well to resist being smug. I choose to enthusiastically, humbly, and gratefully embrace faith…without being angry at anyone else who differs. Use it or lose it, seems to apply to faith (at least temporarily).

Staying with the Bible now, we find several important nuances of faith. First, whenever in the New Testament you see the word “believe” or “belief” that is a translation of the Greek word for faith. So the most basic meaning of faith is to believe.

Now here is an often overlooked point: you choose to believe. Belief/faith is not forced on us. We are presented with a good deal of evidence, empirical actually, but then we have to make a choice. I think many people believe that faith just sort of appears, that it happens when the scales of evidence tip far enough. I think real faith is matter of choice. Each one of us makes a decision about where to plant our flag.

When faced squarely, this is an uncomfortable truth for believers and unbelievers alike. I could, in fact, make a good intellectual case for unbelief. Atheists are not dumb. I understand their arguments and actually find them persuasive to a point.

On the other hand, I can obviously make a good, intellectual case for belief. Christians are not dumb either! Smart people can believe in God and do so by the millions. That’s surely significant.

So what ultimately makes the difference? Choice. God does impress upon us This is very good news for any struggling or would-be believer. You can choose to keep or start believing. It’s not always easy, in fact it’s often not at all easy, but a part of faith is the choice to believe.

The challenge of faith is why trust and perseverance are additional and important nuances. I don’t know of any saint that doesn’t struggle with doubt. The dark night of the soul is a common experience and really shouldn’t be feared. It’s simply a period of time that will pass.

One of my favorite faith illustrations comes from Isak Dinesan who wrote a story about a man who became a rich author early in life. Like most people to whom wealth and fame happen unexpectedly, the young man developed significant adjustment problems. He had written out of poverty about poverty, but now he was rich and felt isolated from the conditions and the people who had given him his first book. He was estranged from his wife, from God, and even from himself. He wandered all night in the streets of Amsterdam, trying to sort things out. He decided that he would never write again and gave away the manuscript of a new book he was writing.

About at the end of his rope, he was considering suicide when suddenly, he felt overcome with the presence of God. God seemed to speak to him directly that he should write again, “’not for the public this time, or for the critics, but for me.’ ‘Can I be certain of that?’ he asked. ‘Not always’ said the Lord. ‘You will not be certain of it all the time. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold on to that.’”

Ultimately faith is something you have to hold on to. Someone wrote “it’s a subtle chain that binds us to the eternal.” Just reach out, take hold, and hang on.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

June 25, 2017

Seeing God

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Matthew 5:8

Seeing God sounds like a fantasy of the first order, yet I believe everyone, if offered the opportunity, would deeply want to see God.

The Bible records a few scenes where people actually saw God. In the Garden, God communed with Adam and Eve in such a familiar way that we might imagine they actually saw God. Of course, the most memorable passage about seeing God is when Moses asked to see Him and God replied that this was impossible, for to do so would result in Moses' death. God did allow Moses to see Him after He passed by. Earlier in the same chapter we read that Moses met with God "face to face," but this obviously is not literal.

The Great Visit was a time when we did see God face to face. Jesus said "if you've seen Me, you've seen the Father." All of God that you can fit in a human being was in Jesus. Taking on the limitations of a man, God became visible. It absolutely applies today that if you want to see God, look at Jesus.

But let's not quibble here. I know what people mean when they say they want to see God. They mean now and physically. They want incontrovertible proof that God is real. Or believers want incontrovertible reassurance during times of doubt. I get it.

I read recently an article about why people aren't going to church as much as they once did. These articles haven't changed much in the 30+ years I've been reading them, by the way. One person, of a scientific bent, said "when I see credible scientific evidence I'll believe in God." She wants to see God.

You know what? I understand. I really do. I don't see her as being shallow or spiritually inept, or too demanding. I really do understand the impulse to want to see more than she has seen.

People want proof that God exists, and what could be better than seeing God? I do take exception to the "lack of proof" argument which I think is the equivalent of someone standing in the middle of a sanctuary and demanding proof that there is a church. But I'm not going to label anyone as spiritually blind or in any way demean them. I understand.

The 6th Beatitude makes an astounding promise that speaks directly to the agnostic and to the theist who longs for greater certainty or simply the blessing of seeing more of God. The promise is direct: we "will see God." The condition is that we "are pure in heart." So we can see God! The question is what does it mean to be pure in heart?

To reduce purity to performance is to miss the point entirely. We get don't get purer from the outside in. No amount of checklist religion is going to bring us closer to God. The lesson is loud and repeated in the Bible that right external actions can actually become a hindrance to seeing God.

I seldom miss the opportunity to quote C. S. Lewis on this matter "The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures in the world are purely spiritual; the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred…A cold self-righteous prig who regularly goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it's better to be neither."

In others words, you can be the cold self-righteous prig who is in the right place, doing the right thing and still be far from the kingdom of heaven. The heart must be purified from the inside, not the other way around.

So how do we have pure hearts? The key is the negation of ego. Self-will is the fundamental problem. It is the implicit trust in self rather than God. Its expressions are endless, and Lewis highlighted a few of them. I would add to his list fear, anger, resentment, and self-pity. Also the damnable tendency to compare ourselves with others and to become the critic. I suppose you can sense the autobiographical tone of this paragraph, but I doubt I'm alone here.

The great truth about Jesus is that He lived here on earth in a state of complete dependence on the Father and Spirit. He did not trust in His own strength. He was not a maverick, separated from the other two persons of the Trinity. He accomplished what He did, miracles and all, not through His own power but by being an open channel for the power of the Father and Spirit.

Now here is the challenge: we become pure in heart through the very same action. My deepest struggles correspond to the times when I trusted more in the gifts than in the One who gave the gifts. I prayed for the knowledge of God's will, and then ran off to do it as if I'd received an assignment I can accomplish on my own. The way forward for me has always been to consistently acknowledge in prayer the deceptive power of my ego and my utter dependence on God. I pray much more earnestly today for God's will in my life and for Him to give me the power to carry it out. That keeps me from the conceit that if I only knew the direction I would be able to walk it.

For me, this is a battle that simply doesn't stay won. My morning prayers revolve around dependence on God, and throughout the day I try to reestablish that focus and surrender. The heart/mind is the battle ground of the ego and the Spirit. The pull and tug is constant. Only by daily prayer and meditation that consists of focus on God will we be on the winning side of that battle. The pure heart has God alone enthroned. And at that point you see Him.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
June 3, 2017

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Remembering Mom

“The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Proverbs 10:7

Mom’s nickname at Lexington Federal Savings and Loan was Sunshine. I was in high school at the time and never asked about its origin, but I knew. Dottie Ellis was a 5’ 2” blue-eyed blond (she humbly called it dishwater blonde that by that stage in her life needed a little extra boost from Clairol to get that “natural look”). Combined with her bright and easy smile, “Sunshine” just fit.

My favorite picture of my parents is one from near the end of, or just after, World War II. Dad had his wings as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and the clear-eyed, confident look of a man from the greatest generation. Mom was his young bride, literally a mid-teenager. Theirs was a whirlwind romance and a marriage born of both passionate love and the fear that Dad might not make it home alive.

In the picture Mom is simply breathtakingly beautiful. I could always see why Dad fell in love with her. The bright smile is there, and as always it reaches all the way to her eyes. It’s a genuine smile, and I know that because I got to see it when no one else was looking.

We laughed a lot in our house growing up. Not that we didn’t have our share of struggles. Dad contracted MS when I was four, and soon was forced to retire from flying. He couldn’t work, so Mom became a secretary. That turned the home and their lives upside down, but I don’t recall it that way at all. They both were focused on being strong and loving for us. From my viewpoint, Dad kept his courage and Mom kept her smile.

She lost that smile to Alzheimer’s about 15 years ago. That was probably the first Mother’s Day she didn’t know me. We’d known for probably 5-6 years before that something was happening with her. She was uncharacteristically snippy, then uncharacteristically disorganized, then confused about the simplest things.

Her mother had gone through this, but for Nonnie I was a more distant spectator. For Mom’s decline I’d have a front row seat. Alzheimer’s is a long twilight where the shadows overcome the personality little by little. The person dies long before the body gives out. Hopefully, and all who’ve been through this probably understand, the time between those two points isn’t too terribly long.

Mom’s body lived 6-7 years after her mind died. To be honest, that gray darkness created for me a kind of mental block for that for ten years now has been hard to penetrate. Dad’s health declined until his death in 2000, but he was still there. The stories still resonated, the laughter endured, the love and the pride survived right up to the end. He was still Dad. He was still “there.”

Not Mom. By the time Dad died, Mom had forgotten so much about her life that we didn’t tell her she was a widow, and she never asked. The light in her eyes was dim. The smile fading quickly.

In early life, honoring your parents has a very clear application. You do what they say. Later I’ve always thought it obviously means living in a way that honors them, but also remembering them. You should tell their stories, their loves, their fears, their triumphs and failures and all of the strivings that make up the texture of life. That’s the way the grandchildren get to know them, and the future greats, and on down the line.

Proverbs tells us the memory of the righteous is a blessing. In that story-telling culture, one generation carefully remembered and shared the stories. They were good at genealogies for a reason. It kept alive not only the memory, but the influence of the earlier generations. And the stories were a blessing. That’s one concrete way today we’re surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.

To be honest, I’ve had an easier time remembering Dad’s stories, and maybe it’s because Dad’s stories were BIG. Dad remembered BIG, if you know what I mean. Accuracy was an occasionally inconvenient option for Dad. So the stories were BIG. But I think mainly I remember them because there is no long, gray darkness at the end of his life.

Though I struggle with the details, it’s a lasting tribute to my Mother that I don't struggle with the main theme. It was the smile. Oh my goodness that smile made me feel like everything was right, and safe, and good. It was my first hint of the deeper joy that God has woven into the world. I think I later grew fascinated by both grace and joy because of my Mom’s smile.

I’ve preached more than thirty Mother’s Day sermons in my life, and by far my favorite illustration comes from a man who told his mother, on her deathbed, that her greatest gift to him was that she always made him feel like she was glad he was born. I had the same experience. I knew my Mother was delighted in me. She clearly loved being a Mom.

Her smile was a comforting, steady proof of that, and it’s the memory of the smile that today awakens in me the memories of the stories. Mom enjoyed me, and I say that reverently and gratefully. We laughed a lot. We had our inside jokes. There were days of endless tenderness and carefully chosen moments of necessary toughness. It’s coming back to me now.

So I’m going to go find Leslie, sit down with her and tell her the stories of the yellow baby blanket, sitting in the swing on the front porch when I came home from school, the butterfly brooch, brownies after bedtime, Horace the Vampire Cow, White Shoulders perfume, walking across the UK campus, hot chocolate, tears when she heard Leslie was going to have a baby, and on and on. Leslie’s heard them all, but it will be good to remember, and in this way to honor my Mother.

No darkness ever extinguishes the kind of sunshine Mom brought into my life. And death itself cannot erase from eternity a smile that stirs my soul even today. I’ll see her again, that I know. Until then I’ll cherish the stories, and thank God for this grace to remember.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
May 14, 2017

Got Contentment?

"I have learned whatever state I am in to be content.” Philippians 4:11

Do you remember your first job? Do you recall what you were paid? My first job was at Rosemont Grocery, a little full-service grocery store, originally on the outskirts of town but long since having been swallowed up by an ever-growing Lexington. The building was old, with white siding, and a few add-ons over the years, but few cosmetic improvements. It still looked like it had been lifted out of the turn of the century next to a dirt road and plopped down in the middle of a busy neighborhood.

It was across the street from where we lived, and I had been going there on errands for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk ever since I was in early grade school. The owner (the first and only) and clerks knew me and had watched me grow up. It was just natural, I suppose, that when they wanted another sack boy, I was it. I was paid $1.10 an hour and during the summers when I could work more hours I took home $24.10. I was glad to have the job and proud of earning money.

A few months after I began working there another friend of mine got a job at Kroger, the big chain grocery store. Now I don’t know what his hourly wage was, and I don’t know how many hours he was working. And come to think of it I don’t even know if he was telling the truth, but he said he took home $80 per week. $80! I can remember thinking, “what would you do with all that money? How could you possibly spend $80 per week?”

Suddenly my weekly income seemed inadequate. I remembering thinking “If only I could reach that level I would be complete. Life would be easy when I made $80 per week.” Well, eventually in other jobs I surpassed $80 per week only to discover that if I made $100 per week (triple figures!!) life would be easy. Having reached that level, I discovered a new level of desire. Nothing ever seemed quite enough. I was always dissatisfied.

The principle here is called discontent, and it can affect every avenue of life. Money, relationships, career, health, even spirituality. Discontent drives you to compare yourself with others, to focus on what you don’t have, makes you believe that something else will satisfy you, and forces you to miss what God has given you. It is the ravenous god of “a little bit more.”

The result is we are always straining and straining to make something of ourselves. Straining to get more. Straining to justify ourselves or feel more important. It comes in a number of expressions, but the result is always the same. Being discontent means missing out on the joy that God has placed right before you. We discover that we can have everything and nothing at the same time.

The opposite of discontent, of course, is contentment, the kind Paul wrote about in Philippians. He claimed that he was able to be content whatever state he was in. The fact that he wrote that when he was in prison, facing a very uncertain future, and no 401k, lends weight to his claim. He had something that we first-world folks mostly lack. He knew where true riches were. He found them in God.

The way to contentment is gratitude. In fact, gratitude is a kind of broad-spectrum antidote to most spiritual ills. It cures discontent, self-pity, envy, greed, self-centeredness, etc. Gratitude can help you relax in the rhythms of God’s grace, trusting Him for your daily bread (and everything else). It takes your focus off your problems and puts it on God’s wonderful, mysterious Providence.

I challenge you this week to try an exercise I have found very meaningful. When a dark or selfish thought crosses your mind immediately list 3 things for which you are grateful. If you can’t then you know the origin of your discontent. If you can you’ll notice a transformation of your spirit. You will be content and find life to be deeply satisfying.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

May 7, 2017

Slow Spiritual Growth (the only kind)

“So that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:7

Are you where you thought you’d be at this point in life? I’m not talking about geographically, professionally, or financially, but more deeply. Are you handling life better? Do you feel stronger? More settled? More confident? Are you reaping the benefits today of a life-long pursuit of a deeper relationship with God?

I don’t recall, frankly, whether it was Leslie or I who said one time “I thought I’d be further along by this time.” I have that feeling every time I’m a bit out of sorts. I may have doubts about my future. Or I may find myself at the mercy of my latest self-centered passion. I react far too strongly to some aspect of my daily existence. I’ve let some soul-disturbing thief break through the peace that God set to guard my heart. Then I wonder if I’ve really made much progress.

For some people this kind of experience becomes the occasion to doubt if the whole thing is true. Convinced that they’re no better off than they were years ago, they decide to fling away from it all for a while.

Peter would understand. The verse above rings with power and confidence. It inspires with its call to a genuine faith that is the result of various trials by fire. This is Peter at his supreme best. He knows what he believes. He’s passionately and unswervingly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And it wasn’t always like that.

We’re a couple of weeks after Easter as I tap out this little devotional. If we go back to a couple of weeks after the first Easter we’re likely to find Peter fishing. He and the other disciples had been commissioned to go and change the world, but at the opening of the last chapter of John, Peter said “I’m going fishing.”

Now the reason for that diversion probably has a lot to do with some residual shame Peter felt about his denials. The point here, however, is that fear and doubt had combined to bring him to a screeching halt. He felt like a failure. No progress. No growth. No use in pretending. So he went fishing.

The great advantage we have with this character in the New Testament is that we have a letter from him about 30 years later. That’s where the quote comes from. Thirty years after casting aside his mission and perhaps his faith, he wrote with a passion we expect from one of the founders of the church. The fact is, he had grown tremendously over those decades, though early on, and perhaps at many intervening points, he wondered if he was worthy and if it was all worth it.

Of course it was worth it for Peter, and it’s worth it for us. We’re growing whether we realize it or not. The chief problem I think is that we tend to judge our entire lives on the basis of our latest spiritual selfie. That one split-second portrait is likely to be very unflattering, especially if I take it during a fit of minor road rage, or in the express check-out line behind the person who has 13 items. There are many times throughout each day that I don’t feel like a very settled and mature Christian.

God, of course, doesn’t take split-second snapshots. Thank God. He watches the whole life with the advantage of knowing how it will end. He doesn’t panic, or throw up His hands in frustration when I’m less than my best or even when I’m at my worst.

God knows what I’m still learning: that spiritual growth is slow. It’s a sometimes frustrating combination of insight and incremental implementation. I know a whole lot more than I’m able to put into practice, but failure should never mean that I stop practicing. It takes time for insight to make a lasting difference.

Have you ever watched a 3-D printer? The jets sweep back and forth over the object being created. Watch it for a few minutes and you can’t tell any difference. Give the printer a few hours, however, and you have a human ear or a complex part for NASA. Genuine spiritual growth is like that. Spiritual growth is so slow that you often can’t tell a difference in the short run.

And because of that it’s often subtle. Just like God usually is. I’m always kind of amused by people who say that Jesus didn’t claim to be God, especially in the Synoptic gospels. But based on what we do know of God, would we expect Jesus to tromp around Israel hollering “Look at ME! I’m God! I’m God!”?

For the most part, throughout the Bible, God prefers subtlety to splashy power displays. The plagues on Egypt were, by and large, an exception. Even Jesus when He performed miracles often told the beneficiaries to be quiet about it. Why? Because subtlety builds faith.

It takes no real faith to believe in a God who scrawls His will across the skies. However, if we understand faith as a kind of spiritual faculty, like sight or hearing, then subtlety is the only way to make it stronger. God’s goal for us is always to strengthen our faith, one aspect of which is trust.

My experience with spiritual growth is that God gives me an insight, and then tells me to hang on to it even when the evidence seems rather thin. I may want Him to be repetitive and obvious. He says “have faith.”

Thirty years after doubt, Peter knew that genuine faith came through testing. It only comes through testing. The combination of pressure, heat, and time produces a diamond or a mountain range. Those same qualities produce a soul fit for eternity. It’s the only way.

Don’t be discouraged for long by the frustrations that are part of every life. None of them have either silenced God or stilled His hand. He is working. Frankly, we’re just plain awful at self-appraisal. So keep the faith and try to glorify God through whatever you face. You’re growing.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

April 30, 2017

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Time to Begin Again

“But go and tell His disciples, and Peter, that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him just as He told you.” Mark 16:7

Once we accept grace as the key to understanding God then we begin to see it everywhere. It’s the light that begins starts at Creation, glows at Eden, comes bursting into full glory on the first Easter, and shines every day. It is the light that sets us free.

We need that freedom every day, because that’s about how often we find a way to let fear and doubt imprison us. So let’s take a look at the simple announcement of the angel in Mark, find the message of grace, and be a little more free.

The message from the angel was a simple: “Tell the disciples that Jesus is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Let’s ask a couple of basic questions about this text. The first question is this, “where was Jesus going to meet the disciples?” The answer is simple. Galilee.

Why Galilee? Is this simply a minor detail? I don’t think so for several reasons.

First, if Jesus had simply wanted to prove that He was alive He could have appeared to the disciples right there in Jerusalem. That’s where His followers were. That’s where He was crucified. That’s where the tomb was located, and that’s where He had just been raised. In other words, all the major players are in or near Jerusalem. Galilee was a region, like a state, some 60-70 miles to the north. So why travel? Maybe Galilee is significant.

A second reason we need to take a closer look at this detail is that all three of the other Gospels record that Jesus did indeed first appear to the disciples in Jerusalem. Apparently, however, He first mentioned Galilee through the angel. Mark is the only Gospel writer that notes that detail. Why? Maybe we have something here.

So let’s look at Galilee in the context of the Gospel of Mark. What occurred in Galilee? Well, that’s where the place Jesus began His ministry. He was raised and spent most of His life there, and the times were good. He taught, healed, exorcised demons and called disciples to follow Him while He was in Galilee. It’s a place of joyful life, successful ministry, and would have been remembered fondly by both Jesus and His disciples.

Then something happens in the Gospel of Mark. The tone changes in chapter 8, as Jesus began to make His final journey to Jerusalem. Along the way He taught the disciples that He would die there. And so it happened.

Now if you are a sensitive reader, you might begin to sense an important contrast in the text between Galilee and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a dreaded place, a city of rejection, suffering and death. But Galilee is place of life and hope and joy. Galilee is significant.

Now the second question: to whom was this message to be delivered? The answer is easy, but highly significant. The angel told the women to tell the disciples. The message was intended for the disciples.

I believe God guided the writing of the Gospels and allowed the interests and styles of the individual writers to come through. In the Gospel of Mark, when it comes to the disciples, Mark never missed an opportunity to show how clueless they were. I don’t have room to go into this here, but as my former professor Dr. Winbery used to say “In Mark, the disciples are dunderheads.” Love that word. And Peter comes off as the chief dunderhead.

It culminates in Mark with all of the disciples fleeing Jesus at His arrest. No one is at the cross in Mark or at the tomb the first Easter Sunday even though Jesus had told them plainly that He would rise again. They fail completely.

So in the Gospel of Mark we find a clear distinction between Jerusalem, the place of failure and death; and Galilee, the place of life.

Now if I were Jesus, I might have wanted to start over with some new disciples. The old ones embraced the hopelessness of Jerusalem. I’d want some that believed more strongly in the promise of Galilee.  But that’s not grace. That’s performance oriented. If you do good enough then I’ll accept you.

Grace says I’ll accept you any way, and that is what Jesus did. So His message to the disciples was “Come back to Galilee. Let’s start over again.” Notice also that He singled out Peter. He needed to hear that invitation more than any of them.

Life beats up and breaks every one of us. Just about everyone I know goes through a time when they feel doubt, and fear, and maybe a little anger at God. Then it all morphs into a kind of self-loathing and we feel beyond God’s regard or care. We make our home in the darkness of Jerusalem.

I want you to hear this Easter Jesus’ invitation to start over: “Come back to Galilee.” It may have been a while, but the invitation stands, “Come back to Galilee.” You need light, life, and joy, and Jesus did everything to give it to you again and again. “Come back to Galilee.” God really does want that for you.

Dot Robertson, a dear departed friend from many years ago, had a cross-stitch from her daughter hanging on the wall that read, “I wonder if you realize how many times your faith in me has made the difference between giving up and trying again; How many times your love for me has helped me find a strength I didn’t know I had.” Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment from a daughter to her mother?

It can be our prayer to God who always says “Come back to Galilee. Come back to faith, and trust, and love. You’re not beyond my reach.” It may sound odd, but God has faith in you. And, of course, He has a deep, deep love for you. That’s why he can always plead with you, “Come back to Galilee.” He wants nothing more than to help you begin again.

So leave behind your self-loathing. It's time to begin again. Start the journey back this Easter. You won’t travel alone.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

April 16, 2017

Pausing for Good Friday

“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again.” Mark 8:31

I didn’t grow up with Good Friday. Literally. Part of the backwash in some segments of the Reformation was avoiding the Christian Year, and in my church we didn’t observe Holy Week or even Good Friday. Or Ash Wednesday or Advent or Epiphany, etc. And I didn’t know what a Maundy was. The cross was preached well and sometimes graphically, but we didn’t observe Good Friday.

During seminary, in my worship studies, I learned about the rhythm of Holy Week and came to deeply appreciate the need for observing certain days. Interestingly, in my first churches I instituted some observations of Holy week. In later churches those practices were already in place by the time I arrived. The lesson? Give Baptists enough time, in this case about 400 years, and we can change. We had a committee do the study and draft a report.

What I lost in those early years was vitally important. In regard to Holy Week, without pausing to consider Jesus’ suffering, all we really did was celebrate His resurrection. Again, we knew the facts of the cross, and Jesus’ sacrificial death was certainly proclaimed. But such an event deserves more attention than we gave it.

The focus in the gospels is precisely the opposite. The verse for this week’s Gracewaves is the first prediction Jesus made of His death and resurrection, and it comes about midway in the Gospel of Mark. Mark records three such predictions, each one increasingly graphic (see Mark 9:31 and 10:33-34). Jesus intensely taught the disciples about His death knowing they would be reluctant to hear it. They were. This scene is where Peter rebuked Jesus for even suggesting such a thing. So, it seems, all disciples tend to rush past the uncomfortable details of Jesus’ death.

Again, not so in the gospels. All four pause for the last week of His life. Narrative time slows down. Details emerge. They focused on His death, and frankly recorded relatively few of His post-resurrection appearances. In the very arrangement of the Gospels we see God’s intention for us to pause, watch, and reflect. Yet we are reluctant to think about His suffering.

Take a moment to google Caravaggio’s Entombment (or as I’ve also seen it called The Deposition). The scene depicts several disciples taking Jesus’ body and laying it on the shelf in his tomb. Typical of his style, Caravaggio uses light and shadow to highlight the anguish of the disciples and the lifeless body of Jesus.

Now look carefully at Jesus’ body. What do you notice? No blood. No wounds on the feet or head. Perhaps a slight mark on His right hand. The wound on His side is visible, but it looks as if it has been cleaned. Again, there is no blood around it. The body is well-muscled, rather athletic. He looks as if He fell gently asleep.

I’ve wondered for many years, since I first saw the painting hanging in a colleague’s office, if Caravaggio was trying to make a point. Was he trying to sanitize the scene? Perhaps unconsciously he was reflecting the kind of reluctance I’ve noted.

I even contacted James Clifton, a friend of nearly half a century (good heavens, the sound of that). He’s the Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston. My rudimentary observations and questions were, I’m sure, the equivalent of asking a Swiss watch maker why he doesn’t always put numbers on the dial, but he was gracious and generous with his time and thoughts.

Though Dr. Clifton warned against gross generalizations he did allow that Italian works, of which Caravaggio is a prime example, tended to idealize Christ and other religious figures, while northern European works focused more on His human fragility. Was Caravaggio consciously projecting a personal theology? Hard to say. What he does do, however, with the portrait he produced is open the door for the questions I posed.

And that is where I think we can relate to Caravaggio. I doubt any of my dear readers do not know the facts of Holy Week, but what kind of portrait of devotion are we painting with our lives? Did my Jesus suffer and die? Is there blood from cuts, gashes, and punctures? Are there bruises? Or do I prefer a more antiseptic portrait that obscures the suffering? An easier Jesus.

I recall an incident from my years in New Orleans. For reasons I can no longer recall I was on a sidewalk next to a cabbie and noticed a small figurine attached to his dashboard. Now remember I was raised in thoroughly Protestant Lexington, Kentucky and at that time was still very unfamiliar with south Louisiana traditions. I asked him about the object and he replied, “It’s just a little plastic Jesus to make me feel better.”

I’m not trying to impugn his theology. I get the idea of having religious symbols as reminders. But it gave me pause to think about how I regard Jesus. Do I keep him around just to make me feel better? Much of the time…probably. I don’t spend much time thinking about my complicity in the cross.

But I must. We really must. We have to pause and think about the fact that He died a horribly cruel and brutal death. In the words of the prophet, we would not want to look upon Him. We have to slow down, like the gospels, and move carefully through the days of Holy Week. We need to think about the weighty meaning of the little three-letter Greek word dei, that is usually translated as “it was necessary.” It was necessary for Jesus to die for my sins. Somehow, in ways no atonement theory can fully describe, Jesus had to die so that I might have eternal life.

When I pause during this week, one of my prayers should be: “I’m so sorry You had to die, but I am so thankful You did.” I believe Jesus’ response would be that He was glad to give His life for me. But what must I do now? How should I live? What will the portrait of my life look like?

One of my favorite Holy Week hymns is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. To survey means to ponder. Slowly. Carefully. We’re not to glance at the cross, and we’re certainly not to rush by it. We survey it and see that “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” My soul, my life, my all. Jesus cannot be an addendum to my well-ordered life. He must be central. Good Friday reminds us of that.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

April 9, 2017

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Golden Scars

“My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

One of the most puzzling themes in the New Testament is the idea of embracing personal weakness as an opportunity to experience God's power.

Jesus taught that being last of all and servant of all leads to exaltation, denial leads to salvation, losing life leads to finding life. Paul wrote of being a broken vessel that demonstrates God's transcendent power. Peter wrote of rejoicing in a fiery ordeal. The Bible itself is a lengthy illustration of this great paradox.

Perhaps the most memorable story of this paradox is Paul’s experience with the thorn. We don’t know what the thorn was, but it was something he didn’t like and wanted it out of his life. With all of his apostolic power this man prayed three times and expected God to remove it. It stayed. Then God gave him the lesson, “My grace is sufficient, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”

History is full of stories of Christians who have found a deeper faith through unimaginable suffering. Either as the sufferer or as a witness to suffering, they emerge with a testimony of gentle and humble trust in God. They have discovered by personal experience, not second-hand, that God is trustworthy and completely dependable. He heals and restores all the lacerations life can inflict upon us.

And what of those former wounds? Our tendency is to attempt to cover them up as if we never had the weakness in the first place. We don’t usually want to remember the thorn, much less talk about it. We try to project and protect a myth of total success. We desperately need God's healing touch, but want to live as if it was an addendum to a well-ordered life and hardly a daily necessity. God has a different idea of what to do with our former wounds.

I recently learned about a Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery called kintsugi. Instead of trying to repair the vessel so that it appears to have never been broken, kintsugi practitioners piece it back together with lacquer then dust the cracks with gold. Instead of disguising the breaks, the beautifully repaired golden lines testify to the shattered history of the object and its renewed usefulness.

Each of us carries a number of flaws and breaks from life. However, God's tender touch brings all of our broken pieces back together. Grace highlights His healing, and thus we become living testimonies of how God has worked in our lives. The scabs from former wounds become scars, fully healed, but glowing with the glory of heaven. And they need not be hidden! Hurting people need to know that God heals all wounds.

So we have a two-fold purpose with our golden scars. First, we don’t need to be ashamed of them or hide them. Ernest Hemmingway wrote in a Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone, and many are stronger in the broken places.” Making us stronger in the broken places takes us to the very heart of God’s purpose.

When you survive the world’s blows you become stronger. You may not realize it, but you are. The life experience you gain is incalculable. Why not embrace that painful part of your history? If you’ve yet to do that, then let God have it all. Better yet, find a trusted friend to share that hidden pain with. God almost always uses other people to bring His message of healing. Discover the strength that comes through your scars.

Second, be willing to tell other hurting people about your scars. Not only will this be a surprising blessing to you, it will also be a tremendous encouragement to them.

In my early recovery from alcoholism, a friend gave me a book and inscribed in it these words: “Be thankful to God for the gift of alcoholism.” Only about three months into recovery, I found those words jarring and unsettling. I suspected they were true, but honestly I wasn’t there yet. The memories of darkness were too fresh. The lessons of light too new.

In the succeeding years, however, I found this idea to be beautifully true. We’re taught in recovery to neither regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. In our very imperfection we found grace. I don’t recommend this particular avenue to anyone! But I assure you, life will find a way to break you. The miracle is that later, after the healing grace, you’ll be thankful. In fact, the New testament goes so far as to say that we should be grateful in the very midst of suffering.

Again, in recovery we’re encouraged to share “our experience, strength, and hope.” The experience begins with the painful chapters of what we were like in active addiction. Pride has us believe that covering up those dark days is the only way to appear successful and healthy again. The spirituality of imperfection teaches us that transparency and openness create an atmosphere where we breathe grace and share healing. Those people who still live in the shadows find hope in our stories. Showing our scars has an internal as well as external benefit. We help ourselves by helping others.

One other illustration from the world of recovery. In my travels I often attend those “anonymous meetings.” I’m a stranger to them. I don’t know a soul. But when I speak I say my name and add that I’m an alcoholic. No one responds with shock or attempts to quiet me. Everyone in that room, no matter the age, history, race, creed, or any other of a dozen different metrics understands me. Why? Because we know we’re bound by a shared brokenness from which we’ve been healed. It’s the most joyous, serene, and affirming experience you can imagine. It’s why I’m now genuinely grateful for my gift of alcoholism.

I have a new, good friend, who recently related something his mother said, “I’ve never known a really good person who hasn’t gone through a really rough patch.” Your rough patch is an opportunity for grace. God only repairs what we allow Him to have. Try placing the broken pieces of your life, your pain, bitterness, fear, and doubt in His hands. And trust the people He places in your life. They likely are a part of your healing.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
April 2, 2017

Acceptance and The Transformation of Trouble

“Do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in that you share Christ’s sufferings.” 1 Peter 4:12-13

A few brief GraceWaves are not sufficient to address completely the subject of acceptance, but I want to draw this little series to a close this week by focusing on the biggest objection to the idea of acceptance, i.e. suffering.

Mention acceptance and the first response is liable to be something along the lines of an objection that we can’t just sit around and accept suffering. I agree. Our faith should be both vigorous and consistent. Perseverance and endurance are two great words in the New Testament, and neither implies sitting around waiting for the next blow.

The fact is, acceptance is not an either/or proposition. It’s not as if we either have to lie down as sheep or implacably fight as lions in the face of the unfairness of life. Acceptance doesn’t describe resignation. It’s a spiritual attitude toward a very clear fact of life.

Take a look at suffering from God’s point of view. The first challenge you must deal with is reconciling the idea of an omnipotent God with the suffering of the world. Put simply, if God is all-powerful then when does He allow pain and suffering?

The clearest answer is in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. God obviously didn’t accept suffering mutely or passively. He waded right into the middle of it, not as a traditional conquering king, but as something far greater. God didn’t set out merely to defeat evil and suffering, but to enter into it and thereby to transform it.

Think of the rhythm of this time of year when we remember the cross and resurrection. The cross represents and reminds us of unspeakable evil and suffering. Surely if God can enter that extreme evil by actually being nailed to it, then certainly nothing we face will put us beyond His love, regard, and care.

Then we have the resurrection. I hope you’re still reading because I want you to stay with me for what I believe is a very important distinction. Most Christians regard the cross as victory, and in many ways it can be viewed that way. Victory over death, evil, suffering, etc.

But I believe vindication better describes the empty tomb. Jesus took a risk of total reliance on the Father, living a sacrificial and vulnerable life. He even doubted the wisdom of His choice when He prayed for deliverance from it. But after concluding the plea for the removal of this cup with a simple trust in and commitment to God’s will, Jesus willingly went to the cross.

By every indication that Passover evening, Jesus was wrong. His disciples thought so. He was dead and buried. Even though He had predicted His death AND resurrection on three occasions, no one was at the tomb the first Easter Sunday morning to welcome Him. They thought He had lost and that all was lost.

But by the most unlikely turn of events, God raised Jesus to life. This was vindication. The resurrection was vindication that the way Jesus chose to live, the trust He had placed in God, the terrible risk He had taken, in all these things He was right. God can be trusted. God never leaves us. God never allows evil to have the final word.

The empty tomb looks like the clearest demonstration of God’s power. It looks like victory. But I say the cross was the victory. Going to the very apex where trust and suffering meet is where you face the greatest test and find God most clearly. It is there, in that weakness, that His power is made perfect.

This is why the Bible has so many puzzling passages about suffering. Start with Peter who wrote that we should “rejoice” in sufferings. That sounds outrageous unless we read and understand the next phrase about entering into Christ’s suffering. Because God entered into the world’s suffering, to the ultimate extreme of the cross, in our suffering we enter in His life. That is joy.

James sounds equally ludicrous with his “count it all joy when you meet various trials” (1:2). Frankly, that sounds offensive, and I wouldn’t recommend you toss it out to someone who is in the middle of terrible suffering. But the sufferer, in order to experience the transformation of trouble, must in their own way and time come to this understanding.

The Bible simply does not focus on the eradication of evil and suffering except in the last book. Until the misty, final times of Revelation become a reality we live in a world that has both wheat and tares. Acceptance means acknowledging life as it is, and yet living with trust, hope, and yes, joy.

Where is God when you’re hurting? Right there with you, completely empathetic. “For because He Himself suffered He is able to help us” (Heb. 2:18). He never left you and He never will. I’ll go so far as to say He can’t leave you because of His very nature. God simply doesn’t turn away from hurting people. He draws near to them, and we can sense His presence if we seek Him in prayer and meditation.

Thus the Bible, and the saints, can speak of the “gift” of suffering because in suffering we lose the flimsy veneer of self-reliance and self-confidence. Pushed beyond our feeble limits we find, through faith, not ashes and dust, but a smiling God who bears the marks of love and offers to sit with us and then lead us through the dark valley of the shadow of death.

A dear friend of mine cared for her husband during a very long illness that eventually took the life of that vibrant man. I stepped into the shadows of that difficult time with her and shared her tears and grief. But I was also immeasurably heartened to watch her faith and even her joy. It was during those days she shared with me the following poem that I think sums up the hopeful promise of acceptance very nicely.

I walked a while with pleasure, she chattered all the way

But left me none the wiser, for all she had to say.

I walked a while with Sorrow, and ne’er a word said she,

But O the things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

March 19. 2017