Month: March 2018

Scandalous Grace

Sometimes you hear a story and it shakes you to the core. The other night I was watching Dateline (don’t judge me I love true crime) and the story they were covering was one I had heard before but had forgotten about.

It was a story, as they often are, about a love triangle. A pretty young divorced mother named Marie Carlson, and a once popular mega-church pastor named James Flanders. The pastor and his wife take the young divorced mother into their home to help her through some difficult times. The woman had shown signs of mental illness and had lost custody of her children to her ex-husband. According to Dateline, however, “she had found God” and was really turning her life around. That is until one day she came up missing. Her phone calls went unanswered, no one knew where she was, and aside from an ominous text she sent out to friends and family no one had heard from her in days. The Flanders’ insisted that she ran off to pursue some “thing she’d always wanted to do.” James Flanders was the last person to see her and said that because of her erratic behavior he was afraid that she’d flown off somewhere and that she was never coming back. He searched for her car at the airport and when he located it he brought it back to his house. After years of investigation it was discovered that Mr. Flanders was not being completely upfront with the circumstances of his relationship with Ms. Carlson. During the time that Marie was living in his home she became pregnant. The story initially was that the father was a very abusive boyfriend of Maries and that the Flanders were trying to help protect her from him. The truth was however that James was actually the father and that the Flanders had invited Marie into their home for the express purpose of carrying on a threesome and a polygamous relationship. The Flanders were unable to have children so Marie agreed to be a surrogate mother for them. All three of them admitted to as much in private conversations that came out later. While this is scandalous enough the story doesn’t end there. The details that follow are very fuzzy but according to James Flanders Marie became extremely distraught over the idea of giving up her baby and during an argument a physical altercation ensued which resulted in Marie’s death. Shocked and panicked James decided to bury Marie in his backyard and pursue a massive coverup. James only admitted to as much (which still doesn’t seem like the full truth) when he was facing a first degree murder charge and life in prison. By pleading guilty and showing law enforcement where the body was (they had not located it despite doing a search of his backyard) he received a lesser charge and 15 years in prison. Flander’s wife was not convicted of any crime and despite committing an Abraham and Sarah type sin she claims complete ignorance and innocence to the murder of Marie Carlson.

I tell this story because it’s one that when we (especially church folks) here it we are horrified and outraged that a pastor would not only compromise his marriage bed but that he would commit murder and bury a body in his backyard to cover it up.

When I first heard this story several years ago I was filled with indignation toward this fellow Christian leader who would so misrepresent our Lord and his Church. But then I was reminded of my own sin…I was reminded that while I haven’t invited another woman to share my marriage bed or physically killed anyone I have been guilty of these very things according to Jesus (Matt. 5:21ff). Furthermore I was reminded of one of my biblical heroes who was guilty of similar sins and yet is called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). David, the king of Israel, not only selfishly took a married woman into his bed, but when he found out that she was pregnant and that her husband was away at war (pretty hard for Bathsheba to explain that to Uriah) he devised a murderous plot to rid himself of any potential fallout for his sins. David, one of the most prolific writers of Scripture, a man who loved God and was considered one of Israel’s finest kings was guilty of the very same sins and crimes as the subject of our story. Except that David did not have to run away in shame…in fact David continued on as king. David did not lose his position or have his writings removed from the canon. No, David was mightily used by the Lord after his sins, he wrote wonderful Psalms (like Ps. 51) where he tells his story of sin and redemption. This is the scandal of God’s amazing grace. While we would tell the Prodigal that he “got what he deserved”, Jesus welcomes him home with a party. While we would never trust Peter with anything ever again, Jesus makes him the leader of the early Church. While we would write King David out of the story, our God highlights him as a true discerner of His character and nature. So what do we do with James Flanders? Yes, he should pay for his crimes. But would you welcome him into your church? Would you extend the forgiveness of sins to him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a place for a man, who has done such heinous things, in the Church of Jesus Christ? Would you trust him to lead anything in the Church ever again? I really don’t know how I would answer these questions and I certainly don’t know how you would but I do know how my Savior would respond for we see it all over the pages of Scripture and we observe it in the way Jesus responded to those who betrayed, abandoned, and murdered him…”Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus’ grace runs downhill…all the way to the bottom. It reaches the people and places we’re convinced it could never find.

*Hat tip to my friend, Julian Brooks, who helped me connect the dots for this post.

 

 

 

Project Car Christianity

project car.jpg

Growing up my dad was always working on some project out in his shop. Much to my mother’s chagrin he would drag home some broken down vehicle or boat in need of a complete overhaul. Once he towed home a giant horse trailer that was completely rusted out and falling apart and we didn’t even own horses! Friends were constantly hitting my dad up for help with their projects; he never charged them he just loved to help people. It was his escape, his way of avoiding the difficulties of family life. To his credit he would, at times, try to include me by teaching me the ins and outs of mechanics and DIY projects but I was rarely interested. I was a book worm and while mechanical things come easy to some it was (and still is) very difficult for me. I wish I had taken more interest in the things my dad was passionate about, it would have been a way to connect with him and at the same time learn some very practical skills that would most certainly come in handy as an adult.

While I didn’t necessarily like the projects my dad chose to engage in, I did take an interest in more anthropological fixer-upper projects. At a fairly young age I felt called to the pastorate. I went to Bible College right out of high school and began pursuing a life of ministry. For many years I viewed ministry in much the same way my dad viewed his projects; I was helping people with their favorite projects (themselves).

Too often we view the Christian life as a project we partner with God on. Unlike me with my dad, we take great interest in learning from God however. We call it “Christian disciplines” and  “sitting at his feet”. Day by day God and I tinker on this “old car” in the garage and once in a while we take it out for a spin, just to see how it’s running. It usually breaks down and together we push it home to continue the endless task of making this project work.

I lived out my Christian life in this way and led others into this type of Christianity for many years. Convinced that by the power of the Holy Spirit I was “getting better” and I was helping others with their progress too. But there was one problem. I wasn’t getting any better and neither was anyone I was supposedly helping. I was struggling with same sins that I had always struggled with but in the paradigm of “project car Christianity” I couldn’t admit to this, I had to pretend that I had everything together and that God and I were making measured progress. I became skilled at polishing and patching my old man to make him operate the way I was convinced he was supposed to. God was of course “the God of second chances” and he didn’t mind the slow and steady progress we were making. This was however an effort in futility. A square peg in a round hole that we’re somehow certain will fit if we try hard enough. No matter how hard you try however you can’t get your old man to be holy or to be obey God. He is fundamentally opposed to God in every way and no amount of prayer, Bible study, or church attendance will make him anything other than this. From a pastoral perspective this kind of theology works well though, for people love to be told that they have skin in the game. Church folks are addicted to pragmatism and desperately want to believe that if they try hard enough (with God’s help of course) they can turn their lives around and take what was once a disaster and make it into something beautiful. This sounds wonderful doesn’t it? It can even be described as “good news” and when preached with enough pathos and pizazz people eat it up like free soft serve on a cruise.

Is this Christianity? Is this what the Bible describes as the gospel? Is the Christian life? A partnership with God where we fix up our old man? The simple answer is no. While we might be looking for improvement and progress the Bible calls for death.

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) 

While I had convinced myself that God and I were making such great progress on our project car there was a brand new car parked in the driveway the entire time. A car that needed no repair and that cannot be improved upon. All this time I thought God and I were “partnering” on trying to fix up my old man he was actually calling me to put the old car in the junk yard and take the wheel of the brand new car he gifted to me in Christ.

The Christian life is not about improvement, progress, or measured results. It’s about death and life. There is no ladder to climb or tangible results to measure. The old man does not need tinkering with, he needs to be crucified. Your sin nature cannot be slowly worked out of you, it must be put to death. Transversely your new man (in Christ) cannot be improved upon, Jesus lived perfectly in your place! His obedience is your obedience. There is nothing that can be added or taken away from Christ and his gift of righteousness. So what are we trying to improve upon? Whether we’re seeking to repair our old man or improve upon Christ we are attempting to do the impossible; beating our head against a proverbial wall of our own making. There is a better way, but it requires something painful, the excruciatingly difficult prospect of giving up on ourselves. If there is any process or progress in Christianity it is this, the continual going back to our baptism where our old man is put to death and we are raised in newness of life in Christ. As long as we live in this body of sin and death we exist in this tension, we face this civil war within. We must remember however, that while this battle must be waged it was ultimately won before it was even started.

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37)