News & Notes


Not a God of Second Chances

“God of the second chance.” I have used the phrase myself over the years, but only recently realized how untrue it is.

I don’t have a God of the second chance. Not even close. I blew through my second chance so many years ago I can’t recall the details.

I need more than a second chance. I need a God who forgives me far more that 70×7 times. Every time I “come to myself,” like the prodigal son, I can trudge back home to find a loving Father. Every day.

Grace means God doesn’t count chances.

One of my favorite poems:

He came to my desk with a quivering lip, the lesson was done.
“Have you a new sheet for me dear teacher? I’ve spoiled this one.”
I took his sheet all soiled and blotted and gave him a new one all unspotted.
And into his tired heart I cried, “do better now my child.”

I went to the throne with a trembling heart, the day was done.
Have you a new day for me dear Master. I’ve spoiled this one.”
He took my day all soiled and blotted and gave me a new one all unspotted.
And into my tired heart he cried, “do better now my child.”
(author unknown)

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
December 2, 2015

Relativity and Grace

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It occurred to me that grace is to Christianity what relativity is to physics. You could say that grace is the quantum physics of theology.

First, both are infinitely puzzling and difficult to understand.

Sir Arthur Eddington was a contemporary of Albert Einstein’s and one of the earliest physicists to understand the concepts of Einstein’s relativity. He was genuinely brilliant, and both confirmed and contributed to Einstein’s work. Eddington also had a colossal ego. One time a reporter asked, “Dr. Eddington, is it true that there are only three people alive that understand the theory of relativity?” Eddington paused for a moment, then replied, “I’m trying to imagine whom the third person might be.”

Is grace any less hard to understand? Why should the last be first? Or the last hired worker receive the same pay as the guy that worked all day? Or everyone be forgiven no matter how big their debt? Or a lousy and obvious sinner receive mercy over the guy who gets all A’s in religion? Or why should God love me unconditionally?

Second, though both are very hard to understand, they are undeniably the way things work in both arenas.

For a 100 year old theory, it’s amazing to me that today I still read of new proofs that Einstein got it right. He actually thought he made one mistake, something called The Cosmological Constant. It seems to be turning out that even that was right in some way. A classic example of “the only time I was wrong was when I thought I was wrong but was right.”

With grace, this is the only way to genuinely change a human being at the deepest level. It’s obviously the way God chose. He gave His Son who set aside His divinity, came to serve and give His life. No law, or rigorous religious lifestyle can approach what grace can do in drawing us near to God. Even though we’re tempted to fear God, box Him in, “draw the line” or prove ourselves, in the end we have to return to grace because that is the way matters of the spirit work.

The one difference between relativity and grace is that you just have to accept grace. Relativity should be studied, prodded, and put to the ultimate tests and experiments. Grace…well, it resists analysis, critique, and proof. That alone makes it obviously godly. Relativity is in the realm of equations. Grace is pure story.

I want to be clear, I do not profess to understand grace, but I know that grace is the only way to explain anything about God. It is the only way to relate to Him, to draw close to Him. In fact, it’s the only way to draw close to one another. We can’t possibly even tolerate one another without grace, and we certainly can’t love and forgive one another without grace.

I’m like the blind man in John 9. “One thing I know, I was once blind but now I see.” So while I don’t claim to understand grace, I do have a glimpse of what it is, and that vision has softened my heart and filled my soul.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis
November 19, 2015

Golden Scars

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. His thorn became the testimony of God's all-sufficient grace, so that he boasted in his weakness. Peter wrote of rejoicing in a fiery ordeal. Etc.

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 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, kinstugi 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 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.

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 may be part of your healing.

Ashley Madison and the Gospel

In case you haven't heard, the adultery-promoting website whose motto is "Life Is Short-Have an Affair" has been hacked. The names and contact info of clients(?) has been published.

This kind of story is low hanging fruit for anyone who wants to rail against adultery. The site is disgusting. It plays to some of the very worst impulses people have. It promotes the myth that if no one knows then no one is harmed, and ignores the far deeper truth that any sin is a spiritual poison, first to the sinner and then to the family or larger social circle. There are no victimless sins.

Like any of the recent big stories, however, I want to know how the gospel addresses a situation. The gospel has something to say to people on all sides of an issue, the perpetrators, victims, and the casual observers. In the case of Ashley Madison we have a perfect illustration from the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11.

This woman was an adulteress. Jesus did not say she was innocent. She was guilty as charged, and the fact that she may have been set up doesn't absolve her. Jesus' response also was not "it doesn't matter" or "everyone does it." Instead He proclaimed a scandalous, puzzling, amazing grace.

I see three applications of the gospel to our present situation.

First, adultery is harmful. We often hear from evolutionary biologists that adultery is in our genes. I doubt any spouse of an evolutionary biologist would accept that as an excuse. Adultery is wrong and harmful. To suggest otherwise is a non-starter.

Second, with the hacking of the site this has become a gross and obvious sin, as opposed to my much more private sins. The gospel tells me that I need saving just as much or more than the woman, or anyone else, caught in adultery. I endorse Dolly Parton's theology, who when asked about some tawdry rumors replied, "Hell, I've either done it or I'm capable of it."

Third, drops the rocks. Jesus specifically and repeatedly warned us against judging, and if that doesn't apply here, then where? And those rocks sometimes take the form of feeling just a little bit smug and superior that your name wasn't on that list. Just drop the rocks. All of them.

Dr. T

The Lightness of Hope

I wrote and preached on hope this week, the theme of the first week of Advent. Some readers/hearers have given me two terrific references to the "lightness" of hope.

Picking up on the line in GraceWaves "hope is a whisper," one friend wrote me the first stanza of an old hymn entitled "Whispering Hope:"

Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard, Hope with a gentle persuasion, whispers her comforting word. Wait till the darkness is over, wait till the tempest is done, Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Refrain: Whispering hope, O how welcome thy voice, Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

And from another friend came a poem from Emily Dickinson, "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers."

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope is the gentlest and most easily overlooked Advent theme, but it has great power. As "Red" puts it in Shawshank Redemption (a movie about hope): "Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things."

Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion, whispers her comforting word.

Wait till the darkness is over, wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Refrain:

Whispering hope, O how welcome thy voice,

Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

Responding to End-of-the-World Predictions

May 21st is the latest end of the world prediction date, or the next one in line. Don’t confuse it with the end of the world prediction for 2012 which comes from the Mayans. No, the May 21st date is from a Christian minister and is being promoted by a group of people in rv’s traveling about the country trumpeting the warning. I am not making this up.

If you want to spend/waste a few minutes google the phrase “end of the world predictions” and browse through the offerings. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of predictions have come and gone in the last two millennia. They tend to cluster around the turn of a century or millennium, or after disasters, and some groups simply can’t resist making predictions. Despite being 0 for fill-in-the-blank, people are undeterred by repeated and unrelenting air balls. Predictions still garner headlines.  

How should Christians who do not subscribe to predictions properly respond to well-marketed predictions?

First, be careful with smug comments. I have already unsuccessfully resisted this temptation, but we do need to remember that contempt and derision are not virtues. Folks who make predictions are easy pickings. Those of us who dismiss the predictions with a bit of highbrow scorn have a historically 100% chance of being right and appearing to be more intelligent, reasonable, biblically knowledgeable, etc. Humility and kindness are always appropriate especially when you have an ironclad guarantee of accuracy.

We must remember the human side of this issue. Many people get caught up in the fervor, and most of them are scared. All of them risk being very disappointed, embarrassed, and disillusioned on May 22. I’m concerned about that. Christian faith is a wonderful combination of joy, insight, peace, and wisdom. It touches both heart and head. When people who practice it become disenchanted, I feel sorry for them. So treat this topic gently.

Second, don’t lose sight of the beautiful truth of Christ’s return. Though I am committed to being careful with my remarks I have a deep concern for the misuse of this doctrine. Because it is the personal playground for the predictors, the rest of us tend to shy away from it. But the return of Christ is solidly represented throughout the NT, and teaching it responsibly does not make us delusional. That God will one day make all things right, creating a new heaven and a new earth, is a reasonable deduction from scripture and from the moral framework woven into all of us. Good really does win, we simply do not know when that will ultimately happen. So let us teach this doctrine as the joyful hope it is.

Third, in the modern religious marketplace two ideas “sell” particularly well: apocalypse and prosperity. They will fill up auditoriums or make people sell their possessions and wait on the nearest hilltop for the end of the world. Nothing gets as much press as a prediction or the promise of a Mercedes.

Both ideas share the common appeal of escape. We are fearful, tired, ill, or heavily in debt and these twin promises offer the idea of deliverance in the form of heaven or a healthier bank account. The temptation is very alluring.

What both the predictors and the prosperity preachers ignore, however, is the fact that God appears intent on helping us live in the meantime. We are not to constantly look for deliverance but for the joy of life as we have it in Christ. We find that joy in our relationship with Christ and in the daily tasks of service to others. In both worship and work we find meaning and every reason to stick around.

Now the folks driving about in rv’s certainly cannot be faulted for not “doing something” with their faith, but doing the right thing for the wrong reason is the very definition of bad religion. Without apology I say unrelenting predictions are bad religion. We need good ideas for good religioin.

I have seen personally the mild hysteria these cyclical events cause (1988 was a big year for predictions, so was Y2K). Christians who get caught up in the panic as May 21st draws near risk at least slight embarrassment on May 22 or a deeper disappointment. Those outside the faith will simply see this as another reason to dismiss Christianity. Let’s all take a deep breath. And for those of you casting nervous eyes to the calendar I cannot say this strongly enough: Do Not Worry! And keep living in the meantime.

Dr. Terry Ellis

May 11, 2011

LeBron, Twitter, and Karma

After a particularly poor performance by his former team (a 55 point loss by Cleveland) LeBron James reportedly tweated that karma was a female dog and the Cavaliers deserved their ignominy for wishing ill upon him for his move to Miami. Or something like that.

Three things caught my eye about this story. First, LeBron provides another example of the hazards of being a 25 year-old young man. His neo-cortex is still wiring up, and for that reason he is still very capable of making very poor decisions, like The Decision or taking a 25 foot fall-away jumper. All parents of young men have witnessed this handicap countless times but are often not aware of the cause. Read more »

A Word Concerning Christianity and Politics: Careful!

Remember the scene in The Green Mile when the guards were bringing in “Wild Bill” the first day? Big John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelt the same”) senses the approaching danger and whispers from his cell, “Careful . . . careful . . .” Sure enough, Bill lulls the guards by acting highly sedated, attacks, and mayhem ensues.

Whenever I hear a political movement courting or promoting a religious angle, or some faction of the church embracing or promoting a political party I whisper the words, “careful . . . careful . . .” The warning is for the church and for Christians who may be seduced into too heavy a mix of political and spiritual matters.

Today is the anniversary of a significant date in Christian history: Constantine’s victory over Maxentius on the Milvian Bridge in 312. Read more »