VICTORY BY GRACE

The very first time I was in Arthur, Illinois, I was meeting with the search team of Vine Street Christian Church so that we could best discern God’s wishes for their vacant Minister position. You might not be surprised to know that the visit went very well. I wasn’t surprised.

All the previous phone interviews were truly spirit-led, and I and the members of the search team were being spirit-fed. God was working in our midst in a tangible way that we could feel, and hear, and see. And, after my first visit, God continued to show us the way of His will, and ultimately God brought us together. 

But there is one thing about that trip that has continued to stay in my heart; the drive out to The Great Pumpkin Patch to meet Bruce Condill. Seems the search team thought it might be a good idea for me to meet the man who serves as the “wise sage” farmer in the field of spiritual harvesting. They were right. 

The visit to the Patch to meet Bruce further affirmed to me that God had a vision for me and for your church to be joined together. 2 specific things I remember about meeting Bruce. 

One, he showed me some of his book collection, and I immediately noticed a Wendell Berry book on his shelves – Wendell Berry being an old country farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, just like me … kinda. Another sign to me from God.

And two, Bruce offered me a copy of an essay written by Paul Tillich, a name I’m willing to bet none of you know. Except for me and Bruce, that is. You see, Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the 20th century, came directly into my life during seminary, when my senior seminar professor assigned Tillich to be my “conversation partner” for my final thesis paper. 

It’s not that I actually got to talk with Paul Tillich, and have a real conversation with him. No, being a conversation partner meant that I was expected to read every word Tillich had ever written, and then use that immense knowledge to help support my arguments in my thesis paper. How did that work for me? Let’s just say … I survived!

That Paul Tillich essay that Bruce gave me, was read by me within a few hours. I remember that now because I pulled out that essay this week and it was filled with my underlining and margin notes. That essay is called, “You Are Accepted,” and Bruce professes that this essay made a significant impact on his own spiritual walk. You may have heard him talk about it. 

Like I said, I pulled it back out this week and noticed that I should probably give it a re-read for Lent. And I did. And now the essay has many more underlines and margin notes than it had before. You see, that essay that was given to me by Bruce some three and a half years ago, was actually meant to be read by me this past week. All in good time … All in God’s time. 

The essay is a tad scholarly and a bit deep (unlike this essay, you’re probably not thinking!), so it’s a pretty good slog through the 6 pages for most of us. But it was worth the effort. The essay aged like fine wine, and filled me up with the presence of God as I drank in every drop it had to offer. 

I learned all over again that sin is not something I do, but rather part of who I am. I learned that sin is what causes me to be separated from God … as well as from other people and from myself. And I learned that deep down, we all have this feeling that we are missing something important in our lives, something that would fill our emptiness and remedy our separation issues. 

Then, after that gut check, the miraculous cure was revealed! Grace! I learned, all over again about God’s soul-saving Grace. That’s the part of the essay that had been waiting from me since I was first given it. Tillich reminded me that real grace is not what many of us think it is. 

Here’s how he defines grace: “Grace is something overcome; Grace occurs in spite of something; Grace occurs in spite of separation; Grace is the reunion of life with life; Grace is the reconciliation of self with self; Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected; Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; and, Grace changes guilt into confidence and courage.

Next, I learned about the paradox between sin and grace, which we all struggle with as individuals, and as community. Tillich quotes the Apostle Paul to reveal to us whether sin or grace wins. And the sacred truth is that “in spite of all the sin in our life and in the world, grace abounds even more.” (Rom. 5:20)

For us, a good and honest Lent can stimulate more of God’s grace in our lives. Since sin never wins in the end, we don’t need to be afraid about spending some honest “me” time with God, to talk with each other. Lent is a “right now” opportunity. When you decide, then it starts. Listen to a Lenten Veteran like me, the time you put into Lent will not be regretted. I assure you. I promise you. How do I know? Because in the end, grace always abounds more. 

See you on the Lenten path,

Pastor Bob <>< 

 


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UNDERSTANDING LENT (with a few laughs thrown in!)

While it’s still early in our Lenten Season, I thought it a good time to review again some of the basics of Lent. The more we understand what Lent is about and what it means, then the more we become able to commit to Lent as a vital part of our faith life. 

This week, I’ve borrowed an article about Lent by Norton Herbst from the website “exploreGod.” And along the way, I have inserted a few Lenten cartoons (almost seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) to keep reminding us that while Lent is a very solemn and reflective time, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a dark or depressing time. Hope you enjoy!

Pastor Bob <>< 

“A WILDERNESS JOURNEY” By Norton Herbst

The idea of Lent began during the third and fourth centuries. The number of days is based on the biblical significance of the number forty—specifically, the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert and Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness.

Thus, Christians describe the forty-day Lenten season itself as a journey in the wilderness. Lent represents a time of searching for God amidst the brokenness of life, a season of intentional fasting before a time of feasting. Historically, Christians have given up something during Lent as a symbolic way to mark their journey and refocus their energy on their relationship with God.

  Most often, this includes fasting from certain foods or drinks. Some skip a meal each day or give up specific things such as meat, caffeine, alcohol, or sweets. Others give up more modern luxuries such as the Internet, social media, or e-mail; reading books, magazines, or newspapers; shopping; watching television; or listening to music.

It is important to remember that none of these things are inherently bad, sinful, or evil. Yet any of these pleasures can easily become overly important in our lives. We likely have all experienced that.

The idea of a Lenten fast is to abstain from these subtle but powerful influences in our lives in order to become less distracted and better equipped to give one’s full attention to the spiritual journey. It is an occasion to relinquish something one typically enjoys in order to identify with Jesus and the sacrifice he made on Good Friday.

Significantly, “Lent should never be morose—an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures.” Lent should be considered an opportunity to realign ourselves with God and pursue a renewed relationship with him.

Many Christians adopt something new during Lent as well. They choose to pray at fixed times each day, read the Bible, serve the poor, observe moments of silence and meditation, or engage in habits that enrich the soul.

On Ash Wednesday, some Christians attend special church services and place ashes on their foreheads as an outward symbol of the repentance and fast they are undertaking. The day before Ash Wednesday has become known as Fat Tuesday, or more familiarly, Mardi Gras. The day is considered one’s last chance to indulge in rich foods, intoxicating drink, or anything else one is giving up for the following six weeks.

    A STRANGE RITUAL?

This yearly ritual may sound strange to anyone who has never observed Lent. But the point of Lent is not to do something “religious” to somehow impress God. Nor is it about drawing attention to what you are doing. Jesus himself warned his followers about fasting or praying in a public and prideful manner.     

Rather, Lent is about recognizing the regular seasons of life and embracing the rhythm of fasting before feasting. And this fasting—however one chooses to observe it—is a journey of faith. A journey of reflection and self-examination. A journey that provokes repentance and transformation.

Lent is a journey that culminates in the hope of Easter morning.

                                                        <>< <>< <>< <>< <>< <>< <><

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LENT IS A GROWING SEASON

Tonight,is the beginning of your Lenten journey for 2021. Lent is just another one of the amazing opportunities for spiritual growth that God continuously puts in front of you. But for many of these opportunities, one of the first barriers we need to overcome is commitment. Many of us have trouble making the personal commitment to our own spiritual growth, and thus we end up missing opportunities from God to grow in our faith and live closer to the Way of Jesus. If you’re like me, you’ve probably missed more of these opportunities than you care to count. 

Starting tonight, and for the next 40 days of Lent, we have again, an opportunity to renew our commitment to God and to our own spiritual growth. I want to encourage you to not miss this one! I believe that in your heart, you are ready for this, and indeed, you are needing this. So, I urge you; Do not miss this opportunity.

Allow me to suggest some things that might help you get out of the starting gates. First, as with anything that has to do with God, you must be honest with yourself about where you are today in your spiritual life. After all, God already knows all about it. Like right now … God knows your fears and weaknesses about making a commitment to Lent 2021. God knows exactly what your needs, and God will help you all along the way by putting opportunities constantly in front of you. God will also be your personal mentor known as the Holy Spirit, and will help you hear things, see things, or find things, that you could not have done by yourself. 

Once you honestly reflect upon who you are today, and where you would like God to take you, then surrender the complete journey to God. The whole thing … none of this “co-pilot” stuff. Let God pilot and take your seat back in coach. 

God’s will is the only way to go, but we have to surrender our self-will for God’s will to have a chance. And even with all that about God’s will, you still have the most important role in this spiritual process, because God has made a promise to all of us that God will not intrude into our life uninvited, nor will God force any decision on you that you are not willing to make. 

So, you see, God and you … need each other. Think about that for a minute! The almighty and all-loving Creator of the universe and maker of all things in it, needs you to help build his Kingdom – whether that be in Arthur or your local community, or at Vine Street CC or your local church, or in your family, or in any area of your life that is in need of help from above. If you become willing, then God’s will can impact every single part of your life, and the more God’s way becomes your way, then the better your life is becoming. 

After honest reflection about where you are on your spiritual path; and after a sincere and intentional effort to surrender to God the things that you need help with (no limit!); now the time comes to take the leap. And that requires a decision, made by you, to sacrifice your instinctual urge to mold your own life, and instead, put all your trust in God. But whether it happens or not is all in your hands. God will come to your door, but you have to open it. God cannot, and will not, do this alone. 

Sometimes I stop to reflect on where I am spiritually by comparing a “religious person” with a “religious thinker.” So many of us start out by being a religious person … that is, a person who comes to know a great deal about religious things – like the Bible, the church, the members, the hymns, the prayers, and even the pastor! As for me, I didn’t start out that way, but I know many of you did. The church, with all its things to know about, was your religious life. 

The danger of being a religious person is that you become susceptible to “growing” comfortable with all the things you know so much about, and thus “change” becomes very challenging for you. The truth is, God is a constantly changing revelation in our world. God is always revealing himself to us in new ways, each and every minute of our lives.  Many of us miss God in our midst because we haven’t developed the eyes to see or the ears to hear. And encountering God is encountering change. Alas, many religious people close their doors to change, and thus to spiritual growth and the revelation of God in their own lives.

For all of us religious people out there, the message that God has is to take the leap … to make the transition from being a religious person to becoming a religious thinker. Look at it this way: Knowing about things is not the same (not even close) as knowing things. Religious thinkers know about what most religious people know about, but on top of that they know, through their own personal relationship with them, what all these religious things mean for them in their daily life. It’s a personal thing … there’s a spiritual relationship with them.  

So, for example, religious folks know about the Bible in some detail, but they may not know how to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit. Thus, they probably don’t see that they have a personal stake in the words of the Bible, nor an understanding that the Bible they know about, is really about them, and that it’s telling their story on a daily basis. When you know the Bible personally, then it becomes “living word” to you, and it meets you right where you are at, on any given day. 

Still, the most important difference between religious people and religious thinkers is their relationship to Jesus. Religious people claim to know a lot about Jesus, while the thinkers have a personal relationship with Jesus. They don’t just have knowledge about Him, but they receive His wisdom in their hearts.  Jesus truly becomes their Lord, and their God, and their Shepherd. They’re not so much focused on knowing about the gospel sayings of Jesus as much as they are reliant on what Jesus says to them personally about gospel things. Big difference! 

Vine Street Christian Church is in spiritual transition. All Jesus-centered and religious thinking churches are. Unlike many denominational churches, Vine Street asks of everyone, to step out and take the leap. Could it happen that every member, and nonmember for that matter, jumps into a new way of life based on having a personal experience with all the religious things in your life … starting with Jesus. 

All of us need spiritual growth. No one ever reaches the final destination in this world. And Lent is the ideal time to take this leap. So … Let’s all, in our own way, with God, make a personal commitment to Jesus that wherever our relationship is with Him today, we will spend the next 40 days with Him personally, each and every day, surrendering to His Father’s will and to His Way – the Way of Jesus. 

No, you can’t do it alone. Yes, you need to embrace Jesus as a personal friend to take even the first step. But try it. Make this Lent your “Leap of Faith Lent.” And if you commit to that, then 40 days from now, when Jesus rises from an empty tomb, and looks you in your eyes, he will call you by your name, because you’ll be best friends! 

Off we go — Walking this path together … Pastor Bob <><


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