October 20, 2017

New Every Morning: Lessons about Grace

The Window, Chagall

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

• Lamentations 3:22-23, NRSV

• • •

The Hebrew word translated “steadfast love” in Lam. 3 is my favorite biblical word: Hesed (חסד). Its meaning is so rich that Miles Coverdale had to coin a new word when he produced his 1535 English translation of the Bible. He called it lovingkindness. Hesed is, essentially, the Hebrew Bible’s word for grace.

Its use in the center of Lamentations is significant. Here, in a chapter in which a sufferer describes his sad experience with language that reflects the exact opposite of Psalm 23 (“your rod and your staff comfort me” vs. “under the rod of God’s wrath”), this poor man points to an underlying reality that keeps him from complete despair: God’s grace and faithful love that never ends and which is renewed every day.

I can’t think of a better way to end our “Jubilee Week,” with its focus on God’s grace, than by hearing these words from Lamentations 3:22-23. Since God’s “steadfast love” never ceases, since his grace and mercy is served fresh each morning, let me share with you today a few lessons about grace that I’ve learned over the years.

Window - Vitebsk, Chagall

One thing I’ve learned about grace…

One of Christianity’s most famous devotional books is The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, born as Nicholas Herman (1614-1691). He served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in 17th century Paris, working most of his life in the priory kitchen, where he developed a reputation for the spiritual insight he gained as he went about his mundane duties.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to “practice God’s presence.” But I’ve never forgotten something profound a teacher said to me long ago. Even more wonderful, he said, is that we can count on “the unpracticed presence of God.”

Selah. (Stop and think about it.)

“Indeed, it is in him that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, Phillips). This is the most fundamental truth about grace. God is before us. He is Creator; we are creatures. All we have, all we are, is pure and unadulterated gift. Any claims we make about achievement are easily traced back to elements of life we had nothing to do with. Without God’s gracious acts of creation and sustenance, there is no first breath nor any subsequent breaths. “His everlasting arms are under [us]” (Deut. 33:27, NLT), and so we are able to stand.

Grace leads us to take the place of the dependent creature before our generous Creator, the source of all life, the fount of all good and perfect gifts. “It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3).

Another lesson about God’s grace I’ve learned…

As a young evangelical Christian, I somehow got the idea that there were places in the world where God was, and other places where he was not. God’s people therefore had a job to do. We, who had God in our lives and churches, were to take God to people whose lives were devoid of God’s presence. As I grew in faith and zeal, went to Bible college and entered the ministry, this responsibility weighed even more heavily on my mind. When I visited homes and hospital rooms, spoke to groups in churches and in the community, and held studies and conducted counseling sessions, I thought my job was to bring God into the lives of those I was serving. If God was going to work in their lives, it would be because people (like me) carried him to them.

Over time, older and wiser mentors removed the blinders from my eyes. Pastors and authors like Eugene Peterson tamed my youthful “zeal without knowledge” by helping me cultivate “the awareness that God has already seized the initiative.”

When I engage in conversation, meet with a committee, or visit a home, I am coming in on something that has already been in process for a long time. God has been and is the central reality in that process. The biblical conviction is that God is “long beforehand with my soul.” God has already taken the initiative. Like one who walks in late to a meeting, I am entering into a complex situation in which God has already said decisive words and acted in decisive ways. My work is not necessarily to announce that but to discover what he is doing and live appropriately with it.

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
by Eugene Peterson

“Every morning, mercies new.” When I begin each day, God has already gone before me into the events of that day. As I approach every task, every encounter, every conversation, my primary duty is to look for signs of what God is and has been doing already. To pay attention. To listen. To discern. To respond appropriately. Whether I can see any signs of it or not, that “godless” person I meet has a long, yet to be discovered history of God working in his or her life. The person may even be unaware that there is a divine story waiting to be told. As I listen, show interest, ask questions, befriend, give practical help, and pay attention to the breezes of the Spirit that “blow wherever they wish,” perhaps a line or two of the narrative will be composed and woven into the Great Story for all to read.

Peasant Life, Chagall

And yet another lesson about grace I’ve learned…

I used to think God was religious. How lovely is his dwelling place! — that is, at the church building, where the church people meet, doing what church people do: singing church songs, using the language of Zion, discussing the business of heaven, celebrating our occasional forays into “the world” to rescue the lost.

Don’t get me wrong. God delights in his family and loves to meet us at the Table, to serve us grace through Word and Sacrament and to receive our hearty “thank you.” I’ve come to believe, however, that he doesn’t love it as much as we might imagine, or at least not as exclusively as we might think.

He has a whole world on his mind! And he loves getting his hands dirty working in the earthy realities of ordinary life. While the righteous are carrying their Bibles to church, that very Bible tells us that somewhere, a Samaritan — someone who doesn’t share our faith — is showing God’s love to a hurting neighbor, and it makes God smile. Somewhere in the world God is not only “loving the righteous,” he is also “opening the eyes of the blind, raising up those who are bowed down, protecting the stranger, supporting the fatherless and the widow, and thwarting the way of the wicked” (Ps. 146:8-9). The God of the sanctuary is working in the living room, the hospital room, the cafe, the office, and in every conceivable place. And he is using every possible means at his disposal, including the contributions of human beings who want nothing to do with him, to accomplish his will. His footsteps may be silent. His ways may not be straightforward and transparent. But the leaven of his rule is leavening the whole lump of dough.

Another lesson about grace I’ve learned…

And now we turn to the subject of “saving grace;” the grace by which we are reconciled to God and receive new life in Christ. I used to think such grace had to be experienced through a conversion that came about because of personal decision for Christ. That is the common revivalist formula that modern evangelicals embrace. I still believe in conversion(s), but I think differently now about God’s saving grace.

God had been savingly active in my life long before I answered an altar call. The first “experience” of God’s redemptive grace in my life is one I don’t even remember — when the pastor applied the Word of the Gospel mixed with water to my tiny infant head, making me part of God’s family and inaugurating the process of “by grace through faith”  in Christ that saves us. It wasn’t about my “decision” then. It was about God’s decision and his pronouncement: “buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4, NRSV)

What I once identified as my conversion experience (“getting saved”), some eighteen years later, was indeed a conversion, a turning around. But now I understand it as a turning back to God’s first promise to me in baptism. It wasn’t my decision that got the deal done. My decision was part of a God-prompted awakening, pointing me to an earlier reality, when God himself got the deal done. In fact, I hesitate to even use the word “decision” to describe my conversion experience in young adulthood. Looking back, it seems so inevitable to me now — so God-planned, God-directed, God-accomplished: grace!

And one final lesson I’ll mention today…

“The grace that comes through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2Cor. 13:14, Phillips). It would not be right to write a post about grace and not give attention to the One through whom grace comes to us. For grace is not an abstract theological concept. Grace comes to us embodied in a Person: “God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, NLT).

Also, I have come to believe that the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ is not best grasped through systematic theological or propositional statements, but through contemplating the story of Jesus. In his most recent book on the Gospel, Scot McKnight reminds us that the early church called the NT’s first books “The Gospel,” according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Our most basic Creed tells the story, from creation to life everlasting, with the story of Jesus at its heart. My involvement in a church tradition that lives the Christian Year annually and practices liturgical worship has made this even more clear to me. For in each season, we walk with Jesus through “the old, old story” once more. Worship each Sunday is a reenactment of the Gospel drama and proclamation of the Gospel message, with a central focus on Christ. As a congregation, we conclude each service meeting with him at the Table, where Gospel grace is dispensed and received afresh.

Finally, the Scriptures remind me that my life as a follower of Jesus every day is completely dependent on his “mercies new.” As Paul writes, “I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, KNT). And in another place: “God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin” (1Cor. 1:30, NLT). Each day, I live within Jesus’ faithfulness, Jesus’ perfect obedience, Jesus’ wisdom, and Jesus’ love, not my own. I don’t focus on “getting better.” I focus on him. My failures, weaknesses, shortcomings, even my sins cannot shortcircuit his daily grace and mercy toward me.

• • •

I will sing of your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, for ever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established for ever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Psalm 89:1-2, NRSV)

Comments

  1. mmmmmm that is so refreshing to hear, God’s grace is so powerful and and refreshing, it really cannot be expressed by any words we have developed or used thus far. It allows a flawed and death-deserving creation have intimate relationship with the all powerful, perfect creator!

  2. Even better than contemplating the story of Jesus, is having that gospel Word done to you.

    Having that forgiveness done to you, in the announcement of the forgiveness of your sins.

  3. Randy Thompson says:

    God’s grace touches me most deeply when I realize how incredibly patient God has been with me over the course of my now rather long life. My being a jerk never stopped God from loving me; that’s truly amazing.

  4. “As a young evangelical Christian, I somehow got the idea that there were places in the world where God was, and other places where he was not. God’s people therefore had a job to do. We, who had God in our lives and churches, were to take God to people whose lives were devoid of God’s presence. ”

    I’m not convinced that you were totally wrong. With so much emphasis recently on “chasing God” – i.e. figuring out where
    God is working and join Him there – I think there is a point to be made that God has met us where we are and uses us to bring that presence to others in our neighborhood through our vocation. I do agree that God is already there before we arrive with our brilliant outreach and missional plans, but I think there is something to the idea that our lives should bring that incarnational presence of Christ to those without hope, rather than condemnation, judgement, and self-righteousness. It’s sad when non-Christians first impression of Christians is typically “hypocrite”. I personally am and will forever be a hypocrite, but my hope is that once and a while a miracle happens, and people do see Jesus at work in me and sense his grace through my vocation, words, and actions.

  5. Chaplain Mike…how is “hesed” pronounced? Accent on second syllable? Letter E with short sound? I looked in wikipedia. Sometimes they spell it as “chesed.” Thanks.

  6. CM,

    What you have written is truth. It produces within me joy, faith, love and wondering worship of God — the verity of the presence of the Spirit.

    Thank you.

    T

  7. Beautifully written!

    Maybe because I am teaching maternity right now, I got the image of us as unborn babies, surrounded phyicially, emotionally, and spiritualy by our mothers, surrounded by a warm cocoon and protected from harm.

    Just as the unborn child doesn’t realize that she is surrounded by another, we tend to forget that we are totally surrrounded by God and his Love and protections. It IS in Him that we live and move and have our being, 100% of our lives.