Drawing Circles Around God

Why is it that, as Christians, we like to draw circles around God? When I was a senior in high school, I had a fairly typical evangelical experience with God. I started thinking of my relationship with God in personal terms, as one of friendship. I got involved in a high school-age Bible study group and then, when I went to college, in an evangelical fellowship group. It was a great time of spiritual growth. My Christian friends and I felt God’s presence in our lives in ways that we hadn’t in the traditional church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. While the churches were filled with “nominal Christians,” we were “real Christians.” If someone had asked us if we were “born again,” we would have known exactly what they meant and said, “Yes.” To be born again set us apart from others who went to church and did religious things, but weren’t really Christians.

Several years later my wife and I were working for an evangelical campus ministry organization. Our task was to guide Christian student leaders in fellowship groups on various campuses. I remember discussing the religious faith of faculty members, basically asking, “Is he/she a real Christian?” At one small liberal arts college, for example, there was a professor in the Religion Department who had taught at an evangelical Christian college. He left his previous position (perhaps he had been forced to leave) due to doctrinal differences. He was a universalist. He didn’t believe God would send anyone to hell. He could talk the evangelical lingo better than anyone else on campus, but was he a real Christian? Similarly, I remember thinking about a Roman Catholic sister who encouraged a group on one of the Catholic campuses where we had contacts. Was she a real Christian?

I see it in my life even now, too. I am excited by new ministries and experimental ongregations doing new things, or ancient things in new ways, to interface with today’s culture, reaching people with the story of Jesus. It is so easy to say, “Look! See the Spirit at work! That is where God is, not in dying denominational churches.” But as an elder in my denomination, I sit on a committee that shares the struggles of small, rural congregations. Yes, they are struggling. They are losing the younger people in their communities, sometimes to “more evangelical” or more “contemporary” churches, sometimes to secular culture. They struggle to balance the budget and overcome personality conflicts. Sometimes it is hard for them to simply keep the doors open. But I have also come to see that a small, “dying” congregation is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, who have been faithful through the years, being salt and light in their towns and villages. They are sinners like us all, susceptible to power fights and personality conflicts. But they are often prayer warriors, praying for God’s work around the world. They give faithfully to offerings to provide help to the poor. They send men and women, money and supplies, to help in times of disaster. They work for good in their villages and towns. But, finding it difficult to accept the rapid changes in our world, they fear that the church is dying. So, they, too, are sometimes guilty of drawing a circle around God. “How can you worship God when the worship service becomes more like a concert?” they ask. “How can those young folks with tattoos and piercings be Christians?” “How can you get to know your pastor when you watch the sermons on a big screen?” Quite simply, they have a hard time seeing God at work “over there.”

There are many ways of drawing circles: traditional denominations divisions, doctrinal disputes, different tastes in worship style, political differences, differences about what kind of lifestyle is acceptable for Christians to live. It is so easy to say, “This is the way the church ought to be. This is what it means to be a real Christian. We are right. They are wrong. God is at work here. Not over there.”

Why are we so tempted to draw lines between those we believe are ”in” and those we believe are “out.” I think it has to do with our own sin, our own need to assure ourselves that God is at work where we are. Confronted with others ways, we want to justify our own. But Jesus challenges us to change our way of thinking, to change our way of acting, in the face of otherness. One day, an expert of the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with a question of his own, “What is written in the Law? What is your interpretation?” The lawyer knew his stuff. He reached into the Law and quoted the two commandments that Jesus himself is said to have identified as central: We are to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer. But then, Luke says, the lawyer wanted “to justify himself,” and went on to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” In short, where can I draw the line? Who do I have to love? Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You probably know the story. But think again about what Jesus did. The lawyer wanted Jesus to draw a circle. He wanted Jesus to say, these are your neighbors, these are the one’s you are to love. Instead, Jesus obliterated the circle. Jesus told a story about a man who was clearly outside of the lawyer’s circle. Samaritans, after all, were racially mixed (not pure Jews!), believed the wrong things, practiced the wrong rituals, and worshiped in the wrong place. They were clearly unacceptable to God, or so thought the Jews. How could they be his neighbors? But Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who reached from outside the circle to meet the needs of a man (probably a Jew) inside the circle. Two devout Jews on the other hand passed by. Which of the characters showed love? Which character did Jesus suggest would “inherit eternal life”? Not the devout Jews! Then, get this, Jesus says “Go and do likewise!” Go be like a Samaritan!! Love beyond the circle. Love all those God brings into your lives, especially those in need. Jesus refused to draw a circle to limit God’s love, and ours. Instead he tells us to go outside “the circle” with love. That’s what characterized his life, too. Jesus hung out with those “outside the circle.”

So why is it that we work so hard to draw a circle, to define who is in and who is out? Like the expert in the law, we draw circles around God to justify ourselves. We find security in believing that we are acting the right way, believing the right things, doing church the way God wants. But it’s false security. Real justification comes from Christ. And Jesus calls us to reach beyond our comfort zone, ignoring our various circles, and seeing God at work in all kinds of ways. I sometimes hear it suggested that the church is dying. God’s church is not dying. It is alive and well, as always , wherever two or three (sinful people) are gathered in the name of Christ. God is at work in small, struggling churches. God is at work in mega-churches we hear about on the news. God is at work outside the church as well. God is at work among people that we Christians draw circles to keep out. May God forgive us and open our eyes to see.

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Nothing But a Sinner

Grace.  In a previous blogs, I wrote that all my life I have been walking on grace street.  It strikes me that I should make something clear.  You may have taken me to mean that I think I am somehow special, that I have a special dispensation of God’s grace.  That is the opposite of what I mean.  I believe there is absolutely nothing that makes me better than other human beings.  Too often, Christians come across as thinking they are better than everyone else. No.  We are no better.  Being a Christian is, in fact, not about being better than others. Walking on Grace Street is about the love of God breaking into my life even when I resist, even when I rebel, even when I don’t act like I want God’s grace at all.

Baptism: Visible Sign of Invisible Grace

On a cold day in November of 1953, my parents, Bill and Fern presented their infant son, Roger, for baptism.  Bill, a minister himself, asked the conference minister to officiate at the baptism.  For the baptism, I am sure the Ebertz family were surrounded by a host of friends, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who had served together with them in that congregation. Baptism, a visible sign of an invisible grace.

Of course, I don’t remember that day at all.  But looking back at an old minister’s manual from the time I can make a good guess what was said.  They promised to teach me “the principles of our Christian religion,” and to pray with me and for me.  The minister prayed, “Grant, O Lord, unto these thy servants, the grace to perform that which they have promised before thee.  And sanctify with thy spirit this child now baptized and committed in Christian faith to thee.”

And so, with water sprinkled on my head, I was baptized, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and received “into the love and care of the church.”  A visible sign of an invisible grace.

Over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve thought a lot about grace.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am at the gracefulness of God.   There are so many times when I have done stupid things and God has saved me by his grace.  I remember once, for example, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old.   I was with my friends.  One of us had found some ammunition for a 22 rifle and we were kneeling down on the sidewalk, hitting one of the bullets with a hammer.  The bullet fired.  By God’s grace, none of us was hurt.

Most people who know me think I am a “together” person.  But from the inside, my life often looks and feels like a mess.  There are times when the mess comes out.   Only through gracious forgiveness from others do I manage to go on.

Several years ago, some things happened that helped me see I needed some counseling.  I began going to a psychological counselor for help.  Those conversations helped me recognize struggles with depression in my life and helped me get medication that continues to help me deal with depression.  This, too, is a gift of God.  Grace.

What strikes me as I think about all these things is this.  All my life, whether I knew it or not, God’s grace has sustained me.  When I did stupid things, God was there, with his gracious love, whether I realized it or not.  In times when I thought I had messed up my life beyond repair, God’s grace came in the form of others who were willing to give me another chance.

God’s invisible grace.  Sometimes we feel it, sometimes we don’t.  That’s why we need sacraments.   Visible signs of God’s invisible grace.  Signs that remind us that God works even when we don’t see it, don’t feel it.  Even when we cannot believe God is real.   We are held in God’s loving arms, not because we do the right things, not because we believe the right doctrines, not because we have gotten our lives together, but because of God’s incredible grace!!

And so I’ve been thinking about baptism.  A visible sign of an invisible grace.  Whether its sprinkling of water on a baby, sprinkling an adult who has come to commit his or her life to Christ, or submerging an adult in the river, baptism is not about what we do; It’s about what God does.  Sometimes we see God at work.  But sometimes, life is dark.  As I mentioned before, I struggle with depression.  I also struggle with my own rebelliousness and sin.  But God’s grace is there because “nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

On that cold day in November way back in 1953, my parents brought me before the congregation to be sprinkled with water.  I certainly didn’t know what was going on.  But what is important is that God did.  I don’t remember the day.  But what is important is that God has remembered me.  It was a visible sign of the grace of God that has followed me all these years.  The street signs on Grace Street are also a reminder to me of God’s grace.  But in a much deeper way, my baptism – and every baptism, is a visible reminder of God’s wonderful grace.   Even when we don’t have a clue what is going on, the loving God is with us.  Even when we do stupid things, God is watching over us.  Even when we don’t feel any divine presence and don’t really feel like we love God, God is present and loves us.  Even when God is invisible to us, we are visible to him.

Walking on Grace Street

A parable of grace.

Over the last eight or nine weeks, I’ve been walking to work.  It’s starting to get warm now, but one day in the heart of the winter, with the wind blowing in my face, God gave me a parable about grace.  The mile and a half to my office every morning and evening gives me some good exercise.  But some days it’s hard to get myself out of the door and on the way.  It’s not just the cold.  My brain has a tendency to pull my spirit down into depression.  For some reason it pulls the hardest in the morning.  It takes me a while to get motivated for the day.  My heart is cold.  But most of the time I manage to get out the door and start walking.

Once I’m walking, its almost always a bit better.  My spirit starts to rise.  My mind thinks of this or that.  I trudge down the sidewalk, adjusting my pace to fit in with the kids on their way to the middle school. About half way, I pass the school.  That’s when I see the crossing guard.  The same one almost every day.  We always wave to each other and say ‘hi.’  That’s just about all we know about each other, that we both happen to be at this particular place at this particular time just about every weekday.  Once we ran into each other somewhere else and she recognized me.  “Hey, you’re the guy who walks by the middle school every morning, aren’t you?”  A brief exchange of minor information about ourselves.  Beyond that, it simply a daily smile and ‘Morning.’  By this time my spirit’s feeling better.  Half way to my office, interacting with others, putting a smile on my face.

A few more blocks and I turn up toward the small university where I teach.  By this time, I’m feeling better.  I’m almost there.  Almost to my office where I can turn on my computer, make myself another cup of hot tea, and think about what’s coming my way that day.  Sometimes, as I walk, I even manage to mumble a prayer in anticipation of the day or in thanksgiving for the fresh wind on my face.  Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t every day, or very long, that I find myself praying.  But sometimes I do.

Interestingly, the last street, the one that takes me to my office is “Grace Street.”  Not long ago, toward the end of the cold days of winter, I looked up at the street sign and it struck me, “Grace Street.”  I thought about that. By the time I get to Grace Street I’m feeling fairly good.  But then I thought some more.  I thought about how I walked out of my house, even though I didn’t really feel like it.  I thought of the crossing guard’s friendly smile that helps to take the chill off.  I thought of the transformation that takes place in my heart every morning.  I thought about how God’s grace was at work, and continues to be at work, even when my heart is cold and my brain tries to pull me toward depression.  I thought about the fresh air, the blood moving in my body, the smile along the way.  God’s grace.  And I realized that all along, not just for the last few blocks, but all along, all my life, in fact, I’ve been walking on Grace Street.  My walk is only possible because of grace.  It is the fresh air of God’s grace that keeps me going.  I hope in this blog to share the journey on Grace Street with you, and that you will share your journey with me.