Photo taken by me of an abandoned gas station somewhere in the Texas “Panhandle,” while heading to my new duty station. My son, Ben, pictured. October, 2007.
Ephesians 2:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the fourth in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery. In this case, Step 7. If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available. -Vinson
There is a story, perhaps familiar to you and attributed to the Cherokee, but it’s anybody’s guess as to its origins. The only certain thing is that it’s older than the internet. In the parable, a grandfather is having a conversation with his grandson.
He says to his grandson: “There are two wolves inside of us that are always at war with each other.”
“One of them is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness, bravery and love.”
“The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.”
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and asks, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”
The parable of the two wolves points out the simple truth that in life there are always two forces at work, two energies within us, if you will; what the Bible describes as the spiritual and the carnal. “All of us,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
We’ve been talking the past couple weeks about the spiritual recovery of soul and how the framework of the 12-Step recovery programs are rooted in scripture. How they offer us a discipline to do the deep digging, healing, and equipping which defines the Lenten journey through the wilderness, if we are serious about recovery and renewal. Having completed the personal inventory and identifying the sources of unhealthy thoughts and behavior, Step 7 invites us to formally and “humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings,” because we all have ‘em.
So let’s start in the assurance of a verse I suspect most of us could say from childhood memory, John 3:16. While the rest of that passage can be a bit fuzzy, it’s that context that matters: God chooses to love us. Not because of what we do, but simply because we are His. Recognizing this truth is to hear and accept God’s gracious invitation.
“Just love me,” God says.
“Love me with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”
“See how that feels and then share the love that wells up within you with everyone until they feel it, too. No exceptions.”
“Hanging out with me,” God says, “changes everything!”
For as we are reminded “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:17]. STOP a minute. Listen. Let me repeat/rephrase that: God did not send the Son into this world to condemn us or others, but instead to lead this world into community, which is precisely what will save ALL of this world.
This is the ground of comfort and THE source of strength that liberates us to do the soul-searching work – for we know God’s grace in Jesus Christ covers us. The toughest part is in the surrender of our will to God, because we spend our lives trying to be in control. We are called to get out of the way and ask the divine surgeon to remove the defects of character and the challenges with which we wrestle.
This is the path to true peace. As the Letter of James tells us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” [James 4:10]. There is no “might lift us up,” but he WILL lift us up – in that surrender of the heart.
Such humility embraces an honest, open, willing life – choosing the ongoing work of letting go of our self-centeredness ever more deeply, as we move our focus outward in service to others. It won’t happen without us being vulnerable before God and possibly people to whom we can trust our sacred story. I am here to tell you, I don’t enjoy the experience, but discover each time I enter that it is precisely there where Christ most richly blesses. So, yes, we may not be enthusiastic in our embrace of such transparency before God, but without it we’d just miss out on the best of what it means to be a disciple.
In “Easing the Ache,” author David Crawford describes this as the point in recovery when the “bumps in the rug” start to appear. In other words, we may set aside one behavior or way of thinking only to let another spring up. I refer to it as “addiction transfer,” when a less unhealthy behavior becomes the replacement, and we risk fooling ourselves. Among those in recovery programs, it is like someone who puts down alcohol, but then accrues out of control debt, or another who stops smoking, but puts on 50 pounds as the nicotine fix is replaced with empty calories, or yet another who sexually acts out as a desire for God-given intimacy that runs out of control.
It is to do the things we “do not want to do,” as the Apostle Paul wrote, “in confession and solidarity with every Christian.” [Romans 7:20].
This is hard spiritual work — as it must get to the “why” – the root of our problems, or it will become like the “whack-a-mole” thing in arcades. Thoughts and behavior will just pop up elsewhere in some other form. The brokenness will remain.
This is one reason we are the church. We exist to worship God: one key expression of worship being the support we offer one another through our life work of spiritual cleansing and growth, in counsel and prayer for one another; in walking side by side with one another through the edges of the fires we must occasionally put out.. In this relationship, per the words of the Psalmist; “this poor soul cried,… was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble” [Psalm 34:6].
And so we are called to take that leap of faith, to accept the grace overflowing, to know God’s love and acceptance in Christ.
It is, says one who has walked the walk, “to disregard these inner voices of doom and jump away from fear and toward love. This is risky, brave, courageous, and painful, but more importantly, it is necessary. By the time we get to,” what I would call spiritual healing, “most of us don’t feel there is any choice but to turn it all over to God one more time, just as we did when we admitted our powerlessness over our addictions and compulsions. Now, however, we do so on an even deeper, more meaningful and profound level. God is there with us in our suffering, hearing the cry of our soul, saving us from trouble.”
This past week, Julie pointed me to a blog about a song with a rather haunting melody, that dates to 2004 when an earthquake and tsunami swept across Asia.
In the dark night of the soul
Our broken hearts you can make whole
Oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
That our sorrows may be faced
In the dark night of the soul
Your shattered dreamers, make them whole
Oh mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace
Lead us to a higher place
Did you hear it?
Oh mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace.
It is that one phrase, “…when we’ve fallen out of grace…” that is often, my friends, our greatest struggle in all of this spiritual recovery work. I’ve heard and seen enough suffering. I think of standing in East Timor amid mass graves, burned homes and churches, and hardly a male to be found and almost no elderly – with a quarter of the population slaughtered because they were Christian. I’ve seen and heard enough when dealing with rape victims. I’ve seen and heard enough when dealing with miscarriages. The list goes on and we well know it.
Too often there is a fallacy that when something tragic happens, God is punishing us: That we’ve fallen out of grace, That our tragedy is of our own making. Yes, there are times when we may, in fact, have a portion of culpability. But just as often — if not more, we are simply sojourners in a world that isn’t perfect.
As the writer notes, and I will add, having been there with others too many times and even for myself on occasion, that if our first instinct is that we’ve fallen out of grace , then my fellow sojourners, perhaps our instincts are not serving us well. It is time to accept at face value, the grace of our Lord.
So, I am going to suggest that no matter what we are sorting through during this Lenten season, perhaps it’s time to re-train ourselves so that it becomes instinct instead to reach to the God who weeps with us in our pain, and abides with us, cradling us in His tender hands, through the terrible times. For then the words of the Psalmist will come to pass, and God will “put a new and right spirit within (us)” [Psalm 51:10]. AMEN.