Bebaw Loves

My grandfather—we called him Bebaw—was an exceptional man of whom I have many beloved memories. I could tell you countless stories about his sacrificial love in my childhood and of his eager and kind spirit—such as the many Christmas mornings where he crawled into the floor with me and said to me with playful sincerity, “Bebaw didn’t get any toys this morning.” After pausing for a moment, he’d ask, “Can I play with yours?” Of course, the answer was yes because toys were great, but Bebaw was better and he was always on my side. This man who held grudges against sports players for decades (Peyton Manning for his thrashing of Kentucky football, to name one), was the first to buy a Duke sweatshirt when I was accepted into the Divinity School at the University he had despised since 1992 when Christian Laettner broke all our hearts.

Bebaw passed in 2011, his wife (Memmi) passing several months later, and we all still miss them dearly. Every family dinner seems to be a little less full, nobody knows who is supposed to dish out the ice cream, and we all take turns trying to tell his stories like he did, but it’s not the same. Well into my adult life, Bebaw continued to be a generous and loving grandfather. When my wife and I were first married, it was the generosity of Bebaw and other family members that made it possible for us to make the trip back from Durham, North Carolina, to Ashland, Kentucky, for Christmas since we had just had to have new tires put on the car and didn’t have the money for the trip. Even after we had achieved some measure of financial stability, Bebaw was forever slipping money into my hands when we made the trip home with the almost ritual words: “For gas. Don’t tell Memmi.” Any time I’d try to tell him he didn’t need to do that he’d laugh and say, not entirely truthfully, “Bebaw has enough money to burn a wet dog.” In those last days of his life, he told me how proud he was of me and my heart melted at the thought of his love for me. His last words to me were the refrain I’d heard so many times before as a child, teenager, and adult: “Bebaw loves.”

In Ephesians 1:7-8a, the author writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” In my life, I’ve had a world-class education in grace being lavished upon me, and yet I still cannot (and will never) comprehend the fullness of God’s grace in my life. To think that God not only gives us those things that we do not deserve and of which we could only dream to receive—for that is simply what grace is—but that God heaps this grace upon us to the point of overflowing is an astonishing realization. My grandfather lavished his grace upon me not because I deserved, for I surely didn’t, and not because I loved him, which I surely do, but because of his deep and abiding love for me. To Bebaw, it seemed the only reasonable response to the deep, deep love he held for his family.

The same is true exponentially for our God who is love incarnate. God doesn’t redeem us by blood and forgive us our trespasses because we deserve it, because we surely don’t, and not because we love him, for sometimes we do but sometimes we don’t and sometimes our actions belie our words, but because of God’s deep and abiding love for us who are made in God’s image and filled with God’s breath.

To paraphrase my beloved Bebaw, God has enough grace to burn a wet dog. To borrow his words, which he assuredly borrowed first from God, “God loves.”

This inspirational word was brought to you by Josh Hearne of Grace & Main Fellowship.

Conversion

Have you ever seen a conversion happen? I don’t just mean the blessed moment when somebody makes a public announcement of their desire to “be a Christian” or to “follow Jesus.” That’s a moment that we might call the beginning of conversion, but to slap the label of “conversion” on such an instantaneous moment is akin to calling the first celery stick weight loss.

No, my question is: have you ever seen somebody gripped by the Spirit and remade over days, weeks, months, and years into the being that God has called them to be? Any conversion is a process that begins perhaps in a moment, but does not relent until that person is transformed. But, conversion is not a word that applies only to altar-walking and blood-soaked hymns in some humid sanctuary. People can be converted into just about anything. Ultimately, it’s a process of transformation, but even though the Christian God is a God of change and transformation, change and transformation are not themselves holy or dominated by the Spirit.

Here’s the truth: we are always and forever being converted—what matters is what we’re being converted to.

Take the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32). Often, we rip right through the passage to get to that moment among the pigs where our protagonist, who has first demanded and then squandered his inheritance from his still-living father on “dissolute living” (read: all those things that good boys and girls don’t do. You know, drink, or smoke, or chew, or go with boys/girls who do) comes to a shocking realization. He exclaims to himself, “My father’s servants have food to spare, but my father’s son is dying of hunger! I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll go home and beg dad to forgive my sins against him and God. I’ll beg for mercy and to become his servant so that I might be saved.”

We rush to this muddy and noisy place in the story because we’ve been trained to see this as the moment of conversion. Don’t get me wrong, it is! The wayward son has seen the effects of his choices on his life and how his pursuit of the world was a pursuit of death; so, he repents and confesses and seeks forgiveness. He sees what he is and starts down a path toward becoming something else. This is, most definitely, a beautiful picture of God’s converting love.

But in our haste to get there, we miss the conversion that happens all around it. Is it not just as clear that the son who repents and confesses was first converted to a love of, and devotion to, something else? In those first few verses, we see a story of conversion from loyal son to prodigal son—from child who loves his father to child who loves his father’s money. We don’t get all the details and we don’t get a speech or exclamation, but we most certainly see a process where he is converted to love of himself and the pursuit of pleasure as his greatest good. He is seduced by the gospel of living for yourself and transformed into something altogether pitiable.

Or how about the conversion of his brother who remains home with his their father. At the end of the passage, the older brother is irate that his father has lavished mercy and reward upon the wayward son come home. The older brother cannot bite back his disgust that his loyalty has remained unrewarded while his younger brother’s sins have been forgiven and overlooked. It seems that while younger brother was away being converted to the gospel of this world, older brother was being converted to a gospel of works and pride. His confidence in his own inherent goodness and effort have made him a hard man who cannot celebrate life restored to the undeserving—indeed, he can no longer see that he is truly among the undeserving himself.

Conversion is happening every day to everybody. Right now, you are being converted from something and into something. God has graced us with some small decisions to make about who and what we are becoming, but make no mistake: you are changing—you are being converted. The primary question is: to what are you being converted? There are a whole host of kingdoms and gospels to which we can be converted, but if we are being converted to any kingdom except the Kingdom of God, or to any gospel but Christ crucified, then we are being converted to death no matter how defensible or reasonable the cause.

So, just who are you becoming?

 This inspirational word was brought to you by Josh Hearne of Grace & Main Fellowship.

 

How Many Kingdoms?

“God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.”  Martin Luther, 1523.

Consider this photograph, taken at the launching of a German warship in 1936.

There are many such photographs from the Nazi era in Germany, and they are chilling.

In the first half of the 20th century Germany was the intellectual center of Western civilization. Germany was also the birthplace of Martin Luther, and therefore of Protestant Christianity.  The world’s leading theologians were German and many of those who weren’t German by birth were educated in German universities.

Yet the German people embraced fascism, a political philosophy rooted in racism and militarism. Millions of good, honest German people would dutifully go to church on Sunday, and then become cogs in an evil machine on Monday.  Their state manufactured machines of war and violence, and the people responded with cheers and salutes.  Their state planned for war and oppression, and the people responded with patriotism and national pride.

We owe a great debt to Martin Luther for exposing the corruption of the church of his day, but his notion that we live in “two kingdoms”—one being God’s kingdom and the other being the secular state (or one “visible” and the other “invisible”)—was ultimately to be a source of great evil in the world.  The notion that the state exists to keep order and that it is fundamentally distinct from the Kingdom of God led to the so-called “good German” syndrome, characterized by loyal, patriotic German Christians, like those in the photo above, cheering and saluting the launching of a Nazi warship.

But should we divide our loyalties this way?  How many kings should we serve?

It is easy to be critical of the Germans of that day, but what if we took a hard look at our own culture?   What do we cheer and applaud?  What do we salute?  How different are we from those German citizens cheering their warship?

Every Thursday evening at Grace and Main we come together for a community meal, following which many of us participate in a Bible or book study.  Lately we’ve been reading and discussing Brian McLaren’s wonderful book The Secret Message of Jesus.  In the book McLaren explores Jesus’ radical proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1: 15)  McLaren challenges the idea that we can separate parts of our lives and existences from the kingdom of God, convincingly showing that Jesus calls us to “see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality he calls the kingdom of God.” (emphasis mine) In other words, we should not live in a “spiritual” kingdom that is distinct and inconsistent with our “political” or “social” kingdoms.

We’ve had some great discussions as we work through the book and consider what living out the kingdom of God should look like in our world.  It is clear, to me at least, that God has ordained only one kingdom, not two.  And as citizens of that kingdom, the kingdom of God, we should give our loyalty and support only to things that further that kingdom, and not to things, such as the launching of warships, that do not.

Now take a closer look at the photograph.

The man with his arms crossed, refusing to salute the ship, is August Landmesser, a shipyard worker who had been persecuted for having a relationship with a Jewish woman.  Amid all those cheering and saluting the warship, August Landmesser courageously refused.

When I look at that photograph I see in that box a little piece of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know what August Landmesser was thinking as he stood there that morning, but I’d like to think he had these words in mind: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by a renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12: 2)

This inspirational word was brought to you by Bill Guerrant of Grace & Main Fellowship.

The Furious Love of God

Stories are very powerful. They can motivate us, challenge us. Stories can break our hearts and heal our hearts at the same time. So, here is a story of God’s unrelenting love:

On a beautiful, summer day in 1981, a boy named Paul was born, and Abba smiled down on His new creation. Also present—as with all births— were Jesus, who was praising the Father for His creation, and the Spirit, who lit on the child and filled him with life-giving breath. A humbling scene for sure: the Sacred Three at the birth of a mere human! And so began God’s unrelenting pursuit of this child.

The boy grew in size and in mischief. And he wasn’t alone in his mischief. He was fortunate enough to be in a family of two brothers and two sisters—each equipped with his/her own special form of naughtiness. But Paul was different. He was a typical boy in some ways: wrecking his bike on purpose, showing off for girls, etc. But he was unique in that he seemed to have spiritual maturity that went beyond his 16 years—a fact that his siblings couldn’t deny.

As the boys lay awake at night, they would make up stories—sometimes ridiculous, funny stories; at other times, deep, meaningful musings on life and death, God and humans. Paul almost always led the conversation to more spiritual discussion. Paul knew the grace and the unrelenting love of God; he knew what was important to his Abba.

He had a passion for God that was confusing to his brothers and sisters. Paul seemed to get in trouble all the time for all sorts of things, things that “good boys” shouldn’t do: smoking at school, getting bad grades, driving when he wasn’t supposed to. But when it came to God, Paul was bold and faithful, committed and unashamed. Paul looked out for the underdog—he loved the outcasts and his enemies alike. Much to the frustration of his brothers, Paul would compliment and joke with the kids that ridiculed and hurt him. At his young age, Paul was putting to practice the words of the enemy-loving Jesus.

On one particularly memorable night, Paul and his youngest brother were talking about life and death. Paul, filled with the deep love of his Abba, humbly stated, “I would give my life if one person would come to know the love of God.” His words were powerful but painful to his youngest brother. The conversation quickly ended, but those words remained deep in the hearts of both boys.

About one month later, on a Wednesday night, Paul and his sister, Mary, and youngest brother were heading to church. Earlier in the day, Paul pretended to be sick so he could get out of a test at school, but he was adamant about not missing church that night. The evening sun was nearing its final descent beneath the horizon, and its rays were blindingly bright. So bright, that as their car crossed over the highway into on-coming traffic, none of the children saw the car barreling towards them. And as the car plowed into them, his life ebbing away, Paul heard the soft, tender words of his Abba: “Come now, my love; my lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed; the snows are over and gone; the flowers appear in the land; the season of joyful songs has come. The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. Come now, my love; my lovely one, come. Let Me see your face. And let Me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful. Come now, my love, my lovely one, come” (Song of Songs 2:10-14). And Paul’s broken, wounded body was, in the words of Brennan Manning, “swept up into the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”

As I stated before, stories are powerful. They have the potential to change lives. And this story has changed my life. It’s the story of Abba’s furious love for my brother Paul. And for me… Because of my brother and his desire for others to know the unrelenting love of God, I now know the love he was talking about. Because of my brother’s willingness to give his life, I can experience the furious love of my Abba for me, an unworthy, broken, ragamuffin.

This inspirational word was brought to you by Matt Bailey of Grace & Main Fellowship.