GraceWaves Articles


Hearing Voices (part 4) The Voice of God

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16

The most important and fundamental question in life is “What does God think of me?” What is your answer?

The answer determines literally everything. If you decide He doesn’t care, then you’re on your own. If you believe He rejects or is angry with you, then fear will rule your life. If you believe God is reluctant or disappointed in you, then you will feel highly insecure as you struggle to meet His out-of-reach demands.

However, if you believe God loves you, then that changes everything too.

No single verse in the Bible better sums up God’s attitude toward you than John 3:16. Luther called it the gospel in a nutshell. It’s likely the most memorized verse in the Bible and for good reason. It settles the matter of how God feels about every individual. It’s the ultimate answer to the first question of meaning: “who am I?” You are created, loved, and redeemed by God.

You might not know this, but scholars are not entirely sure if these words are from John, the writer of the Gospel, or if he was quoting Jesus. The verse comes on the heels of Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus where they discussed new birth and the work of the Spirit. Jesus appears to finish His words in verse 15. Verse 16 begins John’s reflections on Jesus’ teaching.

It doesn’t change the meaning of the verse at all, but it’s an important point. The Gospel of John was the last of the four to be written, and it appears to have been late in the first century. John was an old man, perhaps 80. He was even older when he wrote his letters (1, 2, and 3 John). So, he had all those years to think about his time with Jesus, reflect on His teaching, and come up with the very best way to present the core message in, well, a nutshell.

Not only did he write “for God so loved the world” in his Gospel, he also wrote “God is love” in his first letter. Twice. You never find a verse in the Bible that says “God is uncaring” or “God is mad” or “God is unimpressed.” But you do find John, after decades of reflection on the ultimate revelation of God saying, “He really, really loves you.”

Remember our story from Acts about John Mark and all the voices he must have heard when he disappointed Paul? Today we complete the trilogy, and it’s important because you have those three voices also. The voice of your critic provides correction. The voice of your supporter provides encouragement. But the voice of God always provides your value. God’s voice absolutely must be the most constant and insistent.

Life often is hard, and you can be very hard on yourself. The worst critical voice is the one that shows up at 2:00 a.m., the proverbial buzzard on the headboard. It’s the voice that originates between your ears.

Life also can be much clearer when you radically accept the truth that God radically accepts you. That’s what Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection demonstrate most powerfully. That voice, that truth, absolutely will silence the critical voice.

I recently heard someone say “You may feel that you are only one in the world, but you are the world to One.” That’s the answer you need to the most important question.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

September 29, 2019

Hearing Voices (part 3) The Voice of the Encourager

“Be strong and courageous…for the Lord your God goes with you. He will never leave you or forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

I would have liked Barnabas.

He was the older cousin of John Mark, a young man we met in the book of Acts a couple of weeks ago. John Mark had run afoul of Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, when he had left him and Barnabas in the middle of a missionary journey. When Barnabas proposed a second trip, Paul aggressively opposed taking John Mark with them. The two men went separate ways. John Mark heard the criticism, and that’s always hard. Fortunately, that was not the only voice he listened to.

That brings us back to Barnabas. His name literally means “son of exhortation” or, in some translations “son of encouragement.” He must have had a great father for this wonderful trait shows up in every scene we have of Barnabas in the Bible.

You remember Paul’s early history with Christians? He persecuted them, imprisoned them, and even consented to the death of Stephen. Then he became a Christian and tried to join with other believers. Imagine that scene on Sunday morning. “Any guests with us today? Oh my…” Do you know who smoothed the way and vouched for him? Barnabas.

One early controversy in the church concerned Gentile believers. Could they become followers of Jesus? Or did they first have to become Jewish? The two sides were entrenched, and there was some hostility. Church leaders needed someone with a clear head and warm heart to investigate and make a recommendation. They chose Barnabas, and he helped calm a very tricky situation.

I had many occasions in my pastoral career to rely on certain people who were genuine statesmen; men and women who simply combined grace, strength, and persuasion to defuse controversy. They were also typically the people who were my steadiest supporters and encouragers. They knew how and when to speak a positive word.

Dot Robertson was one of those people for me. She was a member of Berwick Baptist, a little white clapboard church about 10 miles beyond the Great Commission in rural Mississippi. Dot was 70 when I started, an age that sounded impossibly old to me then. She was a retired teacher who stayed in public schools during segregation because she thought little black children needed a good education just as much as the ones who went to private schools.

Dot did everything with enthusiasm. She sang enthusiastically, albeit not very well, but that was part of her charm. She kept the books accurately. Showed up for everyservice. Was never afraid to speak her mind. And she sure did love Jesus and the string of young preachers who drove up from the seminary on Sundays for decades to inflict their sermons on that patient congregation.

I recall after an unpleasant encounter with a couple of disgruntled church members, I dragged myself back to Dot’s house and told her what had happened. She listened, then just walked over, hugged me, and told me that couple had been doing that kind of thing for quite a while. She added that I was a good man and good minister. Actually, she probably said I was “such a good little preacher.” That’s the way they talk. I learned to accept it as a term of endearment.

On the wall of her home she had cross-stitch that her daughter had given her. It read “I wonder if you realize how many times your love for me has helped me to find a strength I didn’t know I had; How many times your faith in me has made the difference between giving up and trying again.” I came to realize that Dot embodied that kind of encouragement. That’s what an encourager does. They help you recover your strength and hope. That’s exactly what Barnabas did for John Mark.

Here’s what I suggest for you this week when life beats you up, or when you beat you up, ask God to send you an encourager. He will. God has sprinkled them throughout your life. Just watch and listen for them. They are the oxygen of hope and will help you recover your courage and faith.

But also, ask God to lead you to someone who needs encouragement. Those hurting people are all around you too, and they’re waiting for you. God will help you notice them. And oh how wonderful it feels to help someone recover courage and faith!

Of course God goes before you and will not forsake you! That scripture is true and powerful. What is equally true and powerful is that God uses believers to carry out His will and purpose, and manifest His character and glory. God's encouragement for you will come this week through one of His sons and daughters. And you can pray for the wisdom and insight to become one of those sons and daughters to people around you.

Grace and peace,

Terry Ellis

September 10, 2019

Hearing Voices (part 2): The Voice of the Critic

Theodore got it wrong, and he got it right.

I’m referring to Theodore Roosevelt who said "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

He was wrong when he wrote “It is not the critic who counts.” I know what he meant, and I’ll get to that later, but good critics do count. The word critic comes from the Greek word that means “to judge” or “to make an appraisal.” In terms of tone, that’s neutral. A good critic is someone who can say “I think you can do better in this way.” That’s a gift from God, though it may be painful to hear.

Listening to a good critic requires a deep level of humility. I must be willing to admit that I have areas of my life that need to be better and that I am almost certainly blind to those areas. I need a good critic.

John Mark (read Hearing Voices, part 1 for his story) had left Paul and Barnabas in the middle of a mission trip. Paul may have been overly aggressive in his criticism of John Mark’s decision, but that criticism may have provided for John Mark’s correction and strengthening.

Someone recently sent me a quote from Mike Mason who described a man’s soul as being like a densely populated city, where “nothing new can be built in his heart without something else being torn down.” The good critic can help you see what needs to be torn down.

So, what constitutes a good critic? That’s where Teddy got it right.

When you try anything new, you are stepping into the arena. In the arena you will have opponents who are dedicated to your defeat. Those are not the critics you want to listen to. In the stands you will have critics who rain down upon you insults, laughter, shame, ridicule, distortions, and outright lies. Those are not critics you need to listen to.

The worst critic, of course, is the one you carry into the arena with you. It lives between your ears and is telling you that you have nothing new to contribute, that there are always people who do it better, and that you never were any good at this any way.

The real problem is that we give waaaaayyyyy too much attention to the bad critics. I’ve decided at this stage in my life that I’m only going to listen to people who have been in the arena. That’s a good critic. I’m a lot better at not listening to the critics in the cheap seats. At least I say I am.

The only way to avoid critics, good or bad, is to not enter the arena, and that’s exactly what your bad critics want you to do. Give up. But thankfully, the voice of the critic is not the only voice speaking to you.

There are two other voices. Again, in the business, that’s what we call “a tease.” Come back next week. In the meantime, don’t give up. Listen to someone who can make you better when you reenter the arena.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

August 26, 2019

Hearing Voices (Part 1)

“And there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated from one another.” Acts 15:39

What I’m about to share with you today is simply a great story from the book of Acts. I’m going to use this story over the next three weeks to talk about the three voices you need to listen to in life when you’re in the middle of a contentious situation.

The story is really the backstory for the verse “there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated.” The two leading missionary figures of the day, powerful and influential leaders in the church, came to a contentious chapter in their lives that led them to go their separate ways. What in the world happened?

The bone of contention concerned a young man named John Mark, who was actually Barnabas’s cousin. He had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, and Luke tells us that he left mid-mission, so to speak, and returned to Jerusalem.

Some months later Paul proposed to Barnabas a second missionary journey. Barnabas agreed and suggested they again take John Mark with them. Here is where the problem began. Paul refused. He was not happy that John Mark had left them during the first journey.

We don’t have the details, but we might speculate that John Mark simply didn’t want to go farther away from home. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he just decided he wasn’t cut out for missionary journeys. Pamphylia, where John Mark left them, was a somewhat wilder, less stable area. He might have been scared. Paul did end up getting stoned there and left for dead, so John Mark’s departure may have been the better part of valor.

All we can know for sure is that Paul was not happy with the parting during the first journey, and he wasn’t about to allow this timid fellow on the second trip. Thus, the stage was set for what Luke called “a sharp contention” as Barnabas argued for his young cousin to get a second chance, and Paul, ever zealous and almost certainly unbending, wanted nothing to do with the undependable young man.

Now think about John Mark for a moment. Have you ever wanted to impress someone you really looked up to? Have you ever let them down? Have you ever let anyone down? Has that failure echoed in your mind, convincing you that you really never will amount to much? Don’t you think some of those thoughts rattled around in John Mark’s head as he thought about how he’d let down the great Paul?

Or perhaps it’s simply a contentious situation you’re dealing with. These come and go. They happen at work, in traffic, in families, on Facebook (good grief!). How do you deal with them? You listen to the voices. Now I’ll tell you what those voices are in the coming three weeks. This is what we call in the business “a tease.” It will make you come back next week.

For this week, however, let’s just nail down that we all have contentious situations that can lead to all kinds of caustic spiritual emotions like anger, resentment, shame, guilt, confusion, etc. Let’s also nail down that the contentious way things might be in your life right now is not necessarily the way things will be down the road. God is always working grace into the lives of people who are open to it.

Many years after “the sharp contention” Paul sat in a jail cell facing a very uncertain future. He longed for his books and parchments, and especially for the companionship of a certain young man. So, he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful in serving me.” That’s the same John Mark who had been the target of his condemnation years earlier.

Remember, God works His grace into the lives of everyone who is open to Him. You just have to listen to the voices.

Grace,

Terry Ellis

August 18, 2019

Invite God Into Your Pain

“In the world you will have tribulation, but rejoice for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I’ve noticed that over the last several weeks I’ve touched often on the topic of suffering. This doesn’t represent a plan on my part necessarily, for I really try to let topics come to me through prayer and what I happen to see at the time. It seems, I suppose, that trials and difficulties have caught my attention a bit more than usual lately.

It's an important topic, of course, and one that nearly everyone can relate to any given day. In my long preaching and writing career, sermons or columns on how to handle challenge and difficulty proved most popular or needed. Life is hard, and the hardness of life can be the great shipwreck  of faith for many people. We need to get this idea right, or we risk losing all. It is the most consequential fault line in American theology.

Perhaps one reason I’ve been drawn to this topic so much lately is that I see so many people getting it wrong. Specifically, I find the idea that Christianity is the way to avoid suffering.

This idea has been around for a very long time. Rev. Ike used to preach that God wanted him to have a Cadillac, and you too presumably if you sent him enough money. I risk sounding snarky here, but when Janis Joplin satirically sang about the Lord buying her a Mercedes Benz, we have a theological problem that needs to be addressed.

The key to a good heresy is to take a kernel of truth and blow it wildly out of proportion. Does God want to bless us? Well, of course. Jesus said the Father knows how to give good things to His children. And yes, doing good does put us in a stream of Providence that generally leads to a better life, and doing bad will eventually catch up with you. But does that mean that if I tithe I’m due a disease-free life of luxury as I jet around the country in my Gulfstream? Of course not.

Now I don’t want to substitute one distortion for another. We do love to casually, even caustically, dismiss some preachers as health and wealth peddlers. But I’ve listened to a message or two from one of the most libeled and I found that particular sermon to be positive and encouraging. Contempt is never a virtue even if I happen to agree with the assessment.

Now I’ve gone a long way around to get to this point: Christians are not in the suffering-avoidance business. We’re called to be part of the suffering-redemption business. And that business is God’s. It's an act of grace, not a reward for my works. Grace wins even when suffering shouts.

Jesus said quite clearly “in the world you will have tribulation.” When He added “rejoice, I’ve overcome the world,” He did not mean that we get a pass on the uncomfortable truth. Paul, James, and Peter echoed this idea. They all suffered, dying awful deaths because of their faith. To suggest in any way that we can or should avoid suffering turns the New Testament on its head.

We expend far too much energy, and have tremendously distorted expectations, regarding our own suffering. Pray to be healed, of course! Pray for a level path, without question! But above all things invite God into your suffering. The redemption throughsuffering is the central and richest idea of Christianity. The cross itself bears marvelous witness to this truth. It is the nexus of the very worst suffering imaginable and the greatest dispensation of grace possible.

Indulge me for a moment in a bit of Greek mythology. I think I can make it worth your while. Through Hades flow five rivers, with Styx being the most familiar. The river Lethe, however, is the most interesting. The word in Greek means “to forget.” Everyone who goes to Hades can take a drink from the river and forget everything.

John Erskine’s poem “Actaeon” focuses on a story from Greek mythology about a hunter who dies tragically. (It’s a great story, but I don’t have time to go into it. Google it.) Anyway, in the poem, Actaeon goes to Hades and comes to the River Lethe. After beautiful stanzas of reflection, he asks this question: “One draught of Lethe for a world of pain? An easy bargain. Yet I keep the thorn to keep the rose.” He could have erased all pain, but he realized the pain was prelude to the blessing. Thorn and rose are forever linked. Lose one and you lose the other.

So here is the question I want to ask you this week: are you trying to take that drink and avoid all pain? Or are you willing to accept the pain in order to gain the blessing? It’s the only way, really. All the other paths involve complaint, fear, and doubt about past, present, or future pain. Take any of those paths and you miss the redemptive grace Christ died to bring into the world.

For some of you this little exercise will mean that you stop playing God. Your questions have been inevitable, but they’re now holding you back. It’s time to move on.  Invite God into your pain. He’s there already. He understands your tears, your doubts, even your rage. But God is also good, and the source of all comfort. He is the rose we find after the thorn.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

August 4, 2019

Are You Crazy?

“And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7

I’m fairly sure it’s not an official DSM diagnosis, but I believe many of us suffer from just plain craziness. Are you crazy? Before you answer no let’s dig into the notion of craziness for a minute.

The English word “crazy” appears to be derived from a Middle English word meaning “to crush.” In turn, that old word likely derives from the French word “ecraser” which means “to crush, break, or shatter.” While you may not be completely crushed, broken, or shattered, judging from your schedules and general spiritual temperament, many of you can honestly say that you are at least a little rattled. Some of you have definitely crossed the line into full-blown brokenness. Craziness does come in degrees.

Life fractures all of us in many ways, and it can completely shatter us sometimes. I think we operate in this broken world with a kind of baseline craziness, and we’re often pushed over the threshold into being fully cracked up.

Occasional craziness is a nuisance, but chronic craziness is spiritually debilitating. Fear is the underlying disorder that gives rise to all the surface-level expressions of craziness. You may imagine controversies, magnify disputes, rehearse or create angry conversations, become unreasonably impatient with only the slightest provocation, or complain regularly. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, you feel apathetic, dull, tired, afraid, or alienated.

Sometimes when teaching about craziness I would illustrate by taking a dinner plate, wrapping it in a towel, and hitting with a mallet. “This is your life” and “This is your crazy life.” Craziness removes the wholeness of life, its integrity, and purpose. So we need something or Someone to put all the pieces together.

The solution lies in maintaining your connection with the God of peace. Paul wrote about a process of letting all your requests be made known to God. We all love that idea! When Lauren was about eight I’d taught her the ACTS acronym for how to pray (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication). She said quite seriously “I have a lot of supplications.”

Lest we treat God like a cosmic Santa Claus, however, Paul added that we are to make these supplications “with thanksgiving.” Gratitude is such a magnet for blessings.

But it’s the result we want to focus on. Paul concluded this section with “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” God’s peace restores wholeness to our logical selves and emotional selves, both sides of the brain. We end up with a clear head for thinking and a warm heart for loving.

What’s more, there is a certain irrationality to this peace. It passes all understanding. I’ve often heard from people in crazy times “I have peace.” Sometimes they’re puzzled by it. Give God a chance in the middle of the worst storm, and He will show up.

The word “peace” in Greek and in Hebrew fundamentally means “wholeness.” So it is peace we need to quiet our craziness, and the God of peace provides a way for us to receive it. In fact, it’s not just a gift He dispenses. Peace is God’s presence that guards us from the craziness of life. Thus Jesus said “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27).

As always, the presence of God in our lives is the key. Even though we may understand 1/1000 of a percent what that fully means, it is stupendously true. It’s why we can have peace.

In another very important program of my life, I’ve learned that when I’m agitated or doubtful, right at that moment, I should pause and pray. Sometimes I get foolishly practical and try to control or solve the craziness on my own. That simply never works in the deep places of my heart and soul. When I pray, however, I’ve never notfelt a sense of peace and found an eventual solution.

Try it. When something happens today that threatens to push you over the edge, pause, pray, and ask God to guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I’m sure you’ll find peace and be a little less crazy.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 28, 2019

The Paper Towel Tube

“Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin and gave the lad a drink.” Genesis 21:19

Imagine looking through a paper towel tube like you did when you were a kid. What you see is a very limited circle of reality. Now keep that in mind as we fill in some backstory.

Hagar is the woman in this verse. She was Abraham’s concubine, a “gift” from Sarah, his wife, to bear him a child. As a practical aside here, wives don’t do this. Husbands don’t suggest it. In case there are any doubts, we discourage this practice today. Email me directly if you have any questions.

Over 3500 years ago, however, this was not an unusual practice. Sarah was in a rush to try and fulfill God’s promise to make a great nation from Abraham. Because she was barren, Sarah took matters into her own hands. Her impatience brought a great deal of heartache to many, many generations.

In the inevitable jealousy that followed, Sarah drove Hagar and her child away. In the harsh wilderness near Beersheba, Hagar ran out of water, laid her child under a bush so that he might die in the shade, and moved off a small distance so she too might die.

The Bible tells us God heard the cries of the child and sent an angel to assure Hagar of her survival, and then we come to the verse quoted above, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Look carefully at the verse again. Do you get the impression that God miraculously created a spring there in the wilderness? No. The wording suggests that God simply made her aware of the well that was always there. Her grief, fear, hopelessness, etc. had blinded her to God’s presence, providence, and provision

Pain in its various forms has a constricting effect on faith. We end up with a paper towel tube view of life that allows us to look only at our troubles. In our little circle of reality are all our fears, resentments, doubts, and complaints. What’s more we want other people to look through our paper towel tube. That little circle consumes us.

The Scripture often presents faith in terms of seeing. Light and dark are related common themes. Jesus’ healings of the blind have a metaphorical meaning. Paul wrote about our need for insight and that the “eyes of our hearts” may be enlightened so that we can see all that God has for us.

During the darkest time of my life I felt alone and hopeless. The circle of my reality shrank until all I saw was genuine despair. The recovery of my faith and joy began with a simple prayer something like “God I feel lost, and I need You now.” I soon felt something I can only describe as a breath. It was as if the Spirit whispered “I am here. You are not alone. Let’s walk back to the light.” And I saw again.

Pain can shrink our field of view so that our pain is all we see. It becomes an all-consuming reality. Faith, however, expands our view and reveals God’s wonder, beauty, and light even in the midst of the darkness. That is the wonder of it all really. Through the lens of faith God transforms our pain, so that pain, instead of being a proof of God’s inexistence becomes the means to see Him most clearly.

Our greatest need is not for God to create something new as much as it is for God to simply show us Himself and what He’s already provided. The well of Living Water is always there. Your need is met. You just need to look again. So, maybe your prayer this week should be for God to take away your paper towel tube.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 21, 2019

The Way to Stop Hating One Another

“What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” Psalm 8:4

Does the night sky make you feel insignificant? Most people reading this have a very limited access to the night sky, our city lights washing out all but a relative few bright points. But when you had a chance to see the vastness of our galaxy, perhaps even seeing the slash of the Milky Way across the night sky, did you feel small? That would be understandable. But did you feel insignificant? That’s hazardous.

In his book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson tells of a planetarium in New York that takes people on a journey from the surface of the earth to the edge of the cosmos. Within a month of the opening he received a letter from an Ivy League psychology professor who studied things that make people feel insignificant. He said that when he viewed the show he experienced a dramatic sense of smallness and insignificance. He wanted to administer a before-and-after questionnaire to assess the depths of depression people experienced from viewing the show. Dr. Tyson eventually proposes “the cosmic perspective” as a solution, and explicitly states that this perspective must not be religious.

Contrast that with the response of a man whose vocation early in life required him to be outside at night, so he literally spent untold hours looking up. He lived in a time undimmed by any city lights, and he actually considered this question of smallness and insignificance that plagued the professor. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” In other words, with all of this “bigness” how can God even notice me in my smallness?

David’s answer, however, was far different from the professor’s. “Thou hast created man a little lower than the angels.” The night sky produced a feeling of religious awe in him that led to a sense of profound significance. His religious faith was integral to his feelings of self-worth and having a valued place in the universe.

Psalm 19 is another astronomical psalm and is a marvelous study in the healthy relationship between scientific knowledge and religious belief. David’s curiosity and observations led him to both wonderful insights about nature and deeper theological convictions.

That combination has interested me from a very early age when I had telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets. Discovery for me has always been tinged with religious awe. And my theological convictions have always led me to want to discover and know (the word science is from the Latin word for knowledge – that’s a good thing!). What concerns me today is the culturally binary attempt to dispense with the former while embracing only the latter.

Chesterton said that before you tear down a fence you need to find out why it was there in the first place. What are the spiritual, intellectual, and even social implications of getting rid of religion?

When we lose the capacity for religious awe, or even lose the willingness to respect the role of religion, we begin worshiping lower things. Without question religious participation is on the decline in our country. This is particularly true among young adults, which has actually always been the case. People tend to gravitate toward matters of faith as they grow older. That’s been true as long as I’ve been watching the statistics.

What’s changed however is a growing impression that religious convictions are not only obsolete or anti-intellectual, but downright dangerous. This phenomenon accelerated tremendously after the 9/11 attacks. Equating religious beliefs with fanaticism became vogue, and thus “militant atheism” was born.

I see this regularly. A student from a university I’m familiar with recently told me one of his professors stated one of his goals in the class was to expose the lunacy of religious belief. I don’t recall the details other than the class had nothing to do with religion at all. The supposition, however, is clear: religion is dangerous, we’ve outgrown it, and we need to rid ourselves of it. In the professor’s case he went so far as “I need to rid it from you.”

Shouldn’t the real distinction be between good and bad religion, instead of religion or no religion at all? We can easily point to screeching failures of both religious people and religious institutions, but do we really want to get rid of the whole idea? That would be akin to my saying I don’t like art because I don’t like Andy Warhol.

What do we lose if we frivolously dispense with the notion of a Creator and the religious structures that seek to teach us about Him and to connect us to Him? (the word religion literally means to reconnect – that’s a good thing!). Again, when we lose sight of the Highest we end up worshiping lesser things. Thus, for example, I fear too many of our young people are graduating from our great academic institutions with empty souls, meaningless degrees, mountains of debt, but a passion for recycling.

To return to my art analogy, to witness the beauty of such artistry everywhere around me calls deeply for me to believe in an Artist. Religion simply helps me to develop the rituals, rites, and rhythms that help me understand and serve the Artist. In that belief I find my truest significance.

My modest weekly suggestion for all ills, both personal and societal, is to emphasize the great necessity for grace. Whatever your religious impulses might be, grace, at the very least, should make you feel accepted by God and significant to Him. If we accept at our deepest levels the great fact of God’s love for us then not only will we feel significant, we will stop hating one another. Think of how much better our world, our nation, our communities would be if we simply stopped hating one another?

Therefore, if we lose religious awe, I truly believe we lose ourselves and the impetus for us to love one another.

I honestly see no prospect for a better anything apart from grace, and that begins with me. When I look into the night sky I may feel small, but I don’t feel insignificant. God created me a little lower than the angels. With that conviction I get a better sense of personal value and the value of all people. Far from being an impediment to any real social gain, my religion, founded upon grace, leads me to love and serve God and love and serve you, whoever you may be.

Do you feel insignificant? God knows and loves you. Now with that certainty go love and tell someone else. That, I’m sure, is God’s great aim for us all.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 14, 2019

Collateral Grace

“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces enduring strength, and you must let that enduring strength have its full effect, that you be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

I have a friend whose son is a professional pitcher, working his way through the many levels of the minor leagues in the hope of making it to The Show, Major League Baseball. He’s had all the ups and downs of a young, aspiring athlete. Success in an early level means a promotion to the next level with better hitters and bigger challenges. He’s apparently working hard and has good prospects of success. We’re all pulling for him.

One day I asked my friend how her son was doing, and in the course of giving me a brief run-down she said “His attitude is ‘you either win or learn.’”

Win or learn. I really like that.

How different we might be if we had a “win or learn” attitude for any pursuit in life. In fact, I believe this is really solid theology and goes to the heart of what James had in mind.

When it comes to life, not just sports, I’m fully committed to winning. I like to win. For example, I like good health. When I have some nagging injury (a loss), I go to my doctor or PT (or call my son who is a PT, very good, and totally free) and try to get well (a win). To date, I’ve had really solid success in winning at health.

I like solid professional success. I enjoyed a long career as a pastor (a win) and enjoy my present career as an interventionist and speaker (another win). Now I haven’t always gotten my way, and there have been those rareexceptions of an ornery church member or two (losses), but I’m in a good place professionally (back to winning).

You get the picture. We all want to win these often significant “competitions” in life. They can be as minor as the air conditioner working all the way up to healthy and happy children and grandchildren, for example.

When we lose, our natural and understandable response is to try to get back to winning. We want to fix things, and, for the most part, we’re pretty good at that. But if we meet a trial only with the desire to fix, then we are going to miss a very important principle: we only learn through the losses.

Now you’re probably mentally trying to come up with all kinds of objections, but never try to live by the objections. There is a certain way the spiritual world works. God takes our trials, our setbacks, our sufferings and teaches us something very powerful that we could learn no other way. If we expect nothing but unbroken success, then we risk becoming spoiled children who just really can’t handle real life.

That’s what James had in mind with the staggering verse that we are to “count it all joy when we meet various trials.” No one wins all the time and winning all the time is not even the point of life. Growth is the point. Growth in faith, in love, in joy, in peace. James had learned through a lifetime of being with Jesus that in every loss God includes enough grace to get us through and a blessing that comes no other way. God makes certain that on the scoreboard of eternity, no one ever needs to lose.

You’re either facing or will face another loss. Try to avoid the tendency to curse pain and sink into self-pity. Instead look for the collateral grace and blessing that God tucks into every loss. The endurance and faith you gain are the real and eternal wins.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 6, 2019

When Faith Falters

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13

You’re not as faithful as you could be.

I may not have met you, but I’m right! Right? Somehow your faith is not as steady, sturdy, regular, or deep as it could be or needs to be. You struggle with doubt and fear. The uncertainties in your life, perhaps right now, have nearly overwhelmed you. Or your faith has cooled to the point of irrelevance. Was it ever real?

The easiest preaching in the world is soaked in guilt and shame. A clever speaker could make someone the stature of Billy Graham squirm. After all, who among us is as perfectly faithful as we should be? It’s always easy to point out faults, and all of us have them, especially when it comes to consistency in faith.

So it’s likely that all readers who’ve stayed with me through this warm and uplifting beginning could agree with the first line. In fact, I’ll embrace it, “I’m not as faithful as I should be.” Perhaps my failure at this point is doubly disturbing, for I have the degrees and background that should make for really strong faith, in the original language no less.

An aside here, I have an MDiv, a Masters in Divinity. In the universe of academia there cannot possibly be a more pretentious-sounding degree. My Doctorate in Theology frankly sounds like a step down. Yet even though I have purportedly mastered The Divine I’m not as faithful as I could be.

Now let’s shift from the negative destruction of error (my lack of faith) to the positive construction of truth, and this truth is very powerful: God is perfectly faithful to me. Even though I limp and doubt, God is faithful to me.

That’s Paul’s point in 2 Timothy. The author of half our New Testament included himself in the phrase “if we are faithless.” I don’t know that Paul ever reached the depths of faithlessness, but I do know from his other letters that he struggled, and wondered, and despaired and was disappointed. His response was not simply “I need to be more faithful!” The solution included “God is faithful to me.” I find that extraordinarily comforting.

You will not make any progress if you consistently beat yourself up for not being faithful enough. You might as well despair because you can’t fly. Life’s shadows can make any of us wonder about the light. It’s simply a part of being human.

A part of being God, however, is that He’s always faithful to you. It’s a major theme of the Psalms. One of our most beloved hymns is “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” God doesn’t doubt or give up on you because it is His character to be perfectly consistent. In that consistency He has chosen to believe in you.

We tread in life on the borders of change and uncertainty. I believe that a great deal of our struggle with this inevitability arises from a lack of conviction, of having not made up our minds about the most important matters of life. Of course, I struggle with faith sometimes, and I can, and should, repeatedly affirm my faltering faith. “I do believe! I do believe!” And the struggle often remains.

How different it can be, however, if I will also say “You are faithful to me.” I’ve then focused on God’s enduring and unchanging character. We have moved here more deeply into the realm of grace. “I believe” is my response to God’s revelation, and that takes work. God’s affirmation that He will be faithful to me is His commitment based on grace. He simply will not give up on me no matter how I struggle with my faith in Him.

All of this means God will take care of me. That is settled. As Moses assured the people who faced a variety of enemies, “Do not be terrified or afraid of them, for the Lord God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).

Am I as faithful as I can or should be? Of course not. My lack of faith does create problems for me when I face an enemy such as fear, for example. If I trusted more I would certainly fear less. But whatever terrors swirl around we now have a firmer place to stand, even with a sometimes-feeble faith. For God is as faithful as He can be.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

June 30, 2019