Apple pies, clay jars, and fresh starts

Pottery wheel in Rhodes, Greece 2010
By Wknight94 talk (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
My wife says I make the best apple pies. I don’t know if that’s true. Our now grown sons didn’t seem to mind helping devour them (with some melting vanilla ice cream on top) on those rare occasions when I ventured into the kitchen and the aroma of a fresh baked pie soon filled the house. When it comes to baking apple pie, it’s really not preparing the apples that discourages me; that’s the simple part. And it’s a cinch to mix in the sugar and cinnamon. The part that’s tough, the part that keeps me from making apple pie more often, is the crust.

Crust either makes your pie, or breaks it. Where I usually get into trouble is not when adding the butter, or the small amounts of water. That’s easy; what’s tough is using the rolling pin. You have to roll it out to just the right thickness, just the right size to fit in the bottom of the pie plate. And the real trick is making sure you put enough flour on the rolling pin. Otherwise, the dough will stick to it. A time or two, when I was trying to roll out the dough to just the right thickness, it became so hopelessly stuck to the pin, that I had no choice. I gathered up the dough, shaped it back into a round dough ball, and started all over again. The second time around, I had enough flour. The dough cooperated this time, and I ended up with a nice, thin, tasty crust. What was the secret? I had to be willing to start over.

Lessons from Jeremiah 18:1-4

They didn’t have pie crust back in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, but God was about to teach Jeremiah a similar lesson. Sometimes, you just have to start over. In chapter 18, the Lord tells the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In some ways, I think Jeremiah must have been relieved. At least God wasn’t asking him to do what he asked the prophet Isaiah to do once as a sign to Israel, to parade around stripped and naked! This assignment seems pretty simple. Jeremiah is to watch the potter as he works the clay on the wheel, making a pot.

I wish I could show you what the wheel looks like. I found a drawing in one of my books. Imagine a large stone wheel on bottom, then connected by an axle to a smaller stone wheel on top. The potter sits at the wheel, with the clay resting on the top, smaller wheel. Then, with his feet, he turns the bottom wheel, which makes the top wheel spin. And of course, that makes the clay spin, allowing the potter to form it with his hands.

So there sits Jeremiah, watching this craftsman working. And the more he watches, the more enthralled he becomes. Jeremiah was probably never a priest himself, but he came from a long line of priests. So while he might have seen a lot of sacrificing of animals by members of his family, it’s doubtful he knew much about pottery. And as he sits and watches the pot take shape, suddenly, something goes wrong. Look at verses 3 and 4 of Jeremiah 18: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (NIV). Here’s how the New Living Translation reads: “But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.”

There are lots of lessons that Jeremiah 18 has for us. Let’s take a few minutes and look at three of those lessons:

  1. God believes in second chances.
  2. New beginnings are usually painful.
  3. God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.

God believes in second chances.

Let’s take a look at that first lesson. God believes in second chances. There’s a word for that; it’s called grace. Theologians define grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” That means we don’t deserve it. In fact, because of our sin, our disobedience to God’s good law, the only thing we deserve is punishment.

Punishment is certainly what Israel, God’s chosen people, more than deserved. God had warned them long ago, when they were just starting out as a nation, that obedience would bring God’s blessing, but disobedience would result in divine curses. Deuteronomy 27-28 talks about those blessings and curses. Listen to the words of Deut. 28:1-6 (NIV):

If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all hiscommands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all nations on earth. All these blessings will accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flock. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in, and blessed when you go out.

But something had gone terribly wrong. Jeremiah 18:3 says that the clay pot was marred in the hands of the potter. God’s people, using their own God-given free will, had chosen poorly. They forgot that the same God who has promised blessings for obedience in Deut. 28 had warned of curses for disobedience just one chapter earlier. Deut. 27:15 says: “Cursed is the man who carves or casts an idol – a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands – and sets it up in secret.” Yet we now that, with the exception of King Josiah, who had tried to turn the people to the worship of the one true God, most of the recent kings of Judah had set-up public worship to other gods. The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had become just one more god worshipped alongside others.

But there’s the potter, working away on his wheel. The jar he was making didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Jeremiah doesn’t go into too much detail, he just says it was “marred.” In any case, there was no way in its present condition that it would be a useful jar. No one would pay good money for it at the marketplace. The potter could have said: “Forget it. This clay is no good.” He could have thrown it aside, sent out his apprentice for some fresh clay. But he does something else. The potter squashes the clay, and starts all over again. The potter doesn’t give up. Brothers and sisters, hear the Word of the Lord this morning: God is a God of grace. God believes in second chances.

I don’t know what you’ve done; I don’t know what your sin is. I’m pretty sure, though, that Satan has told you time and again: “Forget it. God can’t forgive that. You’re over the line. You’re beyond help.” But Jesus tells it like it is. Satan is the Father of lies; don’t listen to him. Jesus stands with his arms outstretched, ready to forgive you, ready to say to you, like he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Woman, where are your accusers? Has none condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11, NIV). Jesus believed in second chances. And even if you need a third chance or a fourth or maybe even more, there is a place of beginning again. Just like the potter squashed the clay, and started over again, you can have a fresh start. You can’t change yourself, but God can change you. Are you willing to be changed?

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Progress report – Day 41

My Avalanche AX 175
My Avalanche AX 175

New Year’s resolutions – remember those?

In the spirit of accountability, indulge me this post today. Rewinding to the end of 2013, I resolved four things:

1) To love my wife even more;

2) To go deeper with God;

3) To keep my mind sharp;

4) To keep my body strong.

Loving my wife more than ever – I’ll have to let Amy grade me on how I’m doing. Lord knows I’m far from the perfect husband, but I can say this: I’m more convinced than ever that on 1 June 1985 when I took my marriage vows with Amy – other than the day when I was 7 and said “yes” to Jesus, deciding to follow Him – those vows that day in June were the best decision I’ve ever made. Can I say that 4 days before Valentine’s  Day?

On going deeper with God – My following a reading through the Bible in a year has made me hungrier to know my Lord (Phil. 3:10). But this year, I’m glad that others are coming along for the journey. If you read French, check out my “30 Minutes avec Dieu” journal.

As for keeping my mind sharp – Besides the theological reading that feeds this blog, I’ve found that reading things non-theological has been refreshing. I’m enjoying my daily dose of news sites, especially nbcnews.com, csmonitor.com, slate.com, and theatlantic.com. Right now, I’m reading Theodore Boone: The Accused by Grisham and A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Kearns-Goodwin tome is a big one, and I’m on a slow read of 3-5 pages per day at bedtime. It’s a well-written book, and I love history.

The toughest one has been “keeping my body strong.” At 50 I’m in the AARP zone, but I refuse to be an old 50! When I’m at home, it hasn’t been a problem getting out on the bike and riding for 15-20 minutes in my hilly neighborhood, although the first few days were a killer. (Thanks go to Claude, my neighbor,  a biking aficionado and brother in Christ who rode with me twice and gave me some good tips, helping me avoid what he called the “heresy” of stopping and walking my bike. Did Claude know the right word to choose, or what?) Rainy days have called for some adjustment, and three times I’ve made a little indoor track of our living room and dining room, walking fast instead of biking. On those days, I’ve had to remember that the goal is not riding a bike. The goal is getting and staying fit. It sure is easy to confuse the means with the end! (Hmmm, there might be another blog post in there somewhere…)

Through these 6 weeks, a passage keeps coming to mind:

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14).

With all this striving, I’m glad that my acceptance with God does not depend upon my imperfect effort. Now more than ever, I’m glad for the grace of God, the unmerited favor that reminds me when I fall short, that’s O.K. God’s love and my acceptance with Him do not depend upon my performance. Still, I’m also glad for the other kind of grace, God’s power at work in me. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Hoosiers. Scott, the average basketball player who rarely is in the limelight, has a close walk with God and prays before games, kind of a precursor to Tim Tebow. His dad is the team chaplain who is also a local preacher. In the key part of the game, Scott comes off the bench and starts stringing together two pointers.”What has gotten into you?” the coach asks. “It’s the Lord,” Scott replies.  “I can feel his strength.”

I’m feeling a lot like Scott these days. It’s a good place to be, and all the credit goes to Jesus.

Next progress report: May 2014

The Optimism of Grace: An Address to the 2013 Graduates of the SNM

DSCN1087
Dr Dave Restrick, former Academic Dean of the SNM, interpreted into Portuguese.

Seminário Nazareno em Moçambique

30 November 2013

Opening remarks

Rev Margarida Langa, Rev José Moiane, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the administration and faculty, District Superintendents, Pastors, members of the Class of 2013, distinguished parents, friends and guests, all protocols observed –

It is my honor today to greet you in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. I am also happy to bring you greetings from Dr Filimao Chambo, Regional Director of the Church of the Nazarene, Africa Region.

We come together on this grand occasion to honor the hard work of our graduates. Our congratulations go to them and to their families. Graduates, you have persisted through a rigorous course of study. Despite temptations to quit, despite moments of discouragement, you stayed in the race. Today, you cross the finish line, and we salute you.

I.  Introduction: The Optimism of Grace

You are heading into a lifetime of professional ministry. Even as you officially launch into that sacred vocation, storm clouds are gathering. Jesus said in Matthew 24 that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and today we hear war drums in Mozambique that beat ever more loudly. At such a time when fear threatens to paralyze us, what word of comfort would God have His children hear?

The shadow of the cross fell ever more darkly across the little band of disciples gathered in the Upper Room. According to John 14:27, Jesus comforted his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (NIV).

Today, instead of sipping from the poisonous cup of fear, let us drink deeply from the cup of Christian faith. As followers of Christ who belong to the Nazarene family, we know that the holiness message we preach is the hope for Mozambique, for Africa, and for the world. What is this message? It is the optimism of grace. Let us reflect this morning on that optimistic grace in three commands:

 1) Let God’s grace transform you.

2) Let God’s grace transform the church.

3) Let God’s grace transform society.

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On grace, law, and spaghetti sauce

garden veg spag sauce in potAs believers, do we follow grace, or do we follow law? And the answer is…

YES.

John Wesley spoke as much as anyone about grace. On the other hand, he cautioned against “antinomianism” (lawlessness). He realized that the same Scripture that speaks of the grace that saves us through faith (Eph. 2:8) also extols the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25).

In the Bible and in Wesleyan thought, grace and law must kiss.

I’ve always loved “America the Beautiful.” The lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates portray this delicate balance. The rarely sung second verse appeals:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

“Liberty” and “law” are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other.

Pastors are charged with the “cure of souls,” and for that cure to be successful, first a diagnosis must be made. Thirty years ago, I knew too many Nazarenes who for the sake of law, lost sight of grace. The early 20th century story (likely apocryphal) is told of the old woman who asked General Superintendent Phineas F. Bresee whether Nazarene women should wear makeup. His reply?

I’ve always said that if the barn needs painting, paint it!

That woman’s question betrays a graceless law, a piling up and keeping of rules as the be-all and end-all of faith. In such a context, an emphasis on grace was desperately needed, and eventually the corrective came.

But as Bob Dylan used to sing, the times, they are a changin’! Once heated discussions of whether we go to the movie theater, wear makeup or jewelry or participate in “mixed bathing” are relegated to cold and musty issues of the Herald of Holiness and Teens Today.  When Christian teens in 2013 show the same rates of sexual activity prior to marriage as those who claim no faith, when cheating on a test is winked at and often there seems to be no difference between the integrity of those attending church and those who never darken its doors, then clearly the issue for the Church is no longer graceless law. Rather, we have arguably careened into the ditch on the other side of the road, that of lawless grace, the antinomianism John Wesley warned us about and that Paul deplores in Romans 6:1 —

Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid! (NIV).

And here is where we come back to the pastor’s diagnosis. In a church where graceless law is the malady, more preaching on grace is a must. After all, you wouldn’t add more salt to a spaghetti sauce that is already too salty!

But for 90% of our churches, in the name of grace, I wonder: Are we stuck in the ditch of lawlessness? Lawless grace is every bit as dangerous, after all, as graceless law. In such a church, the pastor today in his or her preaching will speak often of Christian ethics, of the righteous standards to which God calls His people. When the spaghetti sauce is too bland, add a pinch of salt.

At the end of the day, neither graceless law nor lawless grace can satisfy God’s people. Grace and law must kiss. We need gracious law now more than ever.

God give us wisdom to live the delicate balance.

——–

Photo credit: A Kitchen Addiction

Abortion and the optimism of grace

african_amer_dad_kiss_babyI remember the moment when I first heard the word “abortion.” It was 1979 in Mrs. Ruch’s 10th grade English class and it was student debate day. In a twist on “show and tell,” my female classmate arguing against abortion brought pictures. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. From that day forward, I knew that abortion was to be avoided.

Theologians speak of the “optimism of grace.” But what does it have to contribute to the topic of abortion? The grace described in Scripture extends to all individuals. There is no nook or cranny of God’s creation where God’s seeking grace is not actively present! It reaches to the condemned prisoner on death row, to the woman unhappily pregnant, and to the developing child in her womb. The Psalmist’s words celebrate this pervasive presence of God:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

 For you created my inmost being;
 you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

– Psalm 139:7-16 (NIV, bolding added)

The Christmas story recounts how God used a baby to answer the cries of the downtrodden, people suffering under the crushing dual burden of oppression and sin. The incarnation – God taking on flesh – was a rescue plan. Jesus was Immanuel, literally “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The LORD saw a dilemma and devised a solution. To solve problems, God uses people. In the case of Mary, God used an unwed mother in shameful circumstances to change the course of human history.

Environmentalists speak eloquently of deforestation as the destruction of cures for diseases known and yet unknown. When we clear-cut rain forest, we are destroying forever undiscovered medicines that one day could have cured cancer or a hundred other ailments.

Why is it what we understand about the earth’s natural resources we are blind to when it comes to human resources? In the United States, among the 55 million unborn children aborted since Roe v. Wade became law in January 1973, it is sobering to think of the immense lost potential. Yes, some would have become criminals; let’s not be naive. That is the human condition in a fallen world. Yet others would have been painters, sculptors, teachers, inventors, nurses, plumbers, and carpenters. Perhaps a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners never saw the light of day, the “smoldering wicks” (Isaiah 42:3) that God intended to fan into bright and blazing fires. How many intractable problems persist because the solutions we so long prayed for – creative solutions that God was sending our way in the form of babies – were short-circuited in the womb?

The optimism of grace is really the optimism of love. It says that no matter what mistakes any of us have made – including abandoning our responsibility as would-be dads and moms – there is a place of beginning again! None of us is so broken that Jesus can’t bind up our wounds. And as Jesus brings healing and forgiveness, each of us is part of his restoration team. Are we willing to put an arm of comfort around those who mourn poor choices? Are we willing to be practical support for each other in community solidarity? As Reuben Welch used to preach, “We really do need each other.”

Abortion is the tragic failure of imagination. Together, we can do better.

—————

Photo credit: Smart Beginnings