6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's judgment. 10 For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God -- all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in making us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-11 NLT)
I believe in the power of free will. God has given us no greater gift or privilege. It's the most powerful thing God could have done as the creator of the universe... to invest us with the power to say "yes" or "no".
We learn and re-learn the frightening excitement that comes with the intoxication of experienced free will. Last night I was watching Game 1 of the NBA Finals with Eric the Buckeye. He's taking some time off in June to do some traveling, catch up on the continuing ed credits you need to keep current in his profession, and just generally relax. Since he's had time off in the middle of the day, his girls are out of town with family, and his much better-half is still putting her nose to the grindstone, he's been enjoying mostly free days where, as he described it, "I can play tennis outside in the afternoon for the first time since high school."
Which got me thinking about my happy, carefree high school days.
Contrary to whatever reputation I might have had back in the day, my high school experience wasn't filled with bad craziness. I was never one for illicit substances or pretending like I was at a party at Led Zeppelin's hotel. My time was filled more with "Ferris Bueller" kinds of experiences.
You remember Ferris. Ditched school a ninth day the last semester of his senior year because it was too nice outside to be trapped in class. For many of us growing up in the eighties, Ferris Bueller was kind of a quasi-hero. And while I never impersonated Abe Fromann, the sausage king of Chicago, I was known to ditch the occasional day of school to catch a ball game and to lip-sync in public places (not too many parades, but I do a mean rendition of "New York, New York".... just ask anyone who was at "Red Pin Night" at Moreo Lanes on various Friday nights in 1986 and 87).
Do you remember going out with your friends on a Saturday night? Do you remember loading up in the car and heading off to find some new adventure? That feeling like as long as there was gas in your tank, and you had your friends with you, just about anything could happen.... do you remember?
Well, I do. That natural high you felt came from the power of free will. A whole world in front of you with unlimited possibilities. Believe me when I tell you, God gave no greater, precious, and fragile gift.
Now, though, with more than 40 years of living under my belt, while I am staunch believer that God does not pre-destine our lives, I can safely say this... the grace of God, while offering us freedom, does seem to look out for us. That's part of the kingdom experience I think, this grace God gives us.
John Wesley, a very smart dude who founded this Christian movement (Methodism) that I'm in, speculated that before we knew how badly we needed God, God knew how badly he wanted us. As a result of this love God has for us, while He gives us freedom to make our own choices , the Lord works in ways only He can fully explain to draw us near Him. That's the idea I think Paul is trying to get at in Romans 5:
Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's judgment.
Prevenient Grace is the strange force of love and forgiveness working on us before we know we need to be connected and at peace with God, that God has already put the wheels in motion to help make that happen. Justifying Grace is the moment when we realize the force of love and forgiveness, washing over us and washing away all the pain, uncertainty, shame... the power of that moment may not last, but the memory of it, and our understanding of God does. Sanctifying Grace is God's love and forgiveness reshaping and remaking us. It's as if, in some strange way all of life is trying to pull us toward God on the shoulders of the mighty stream that is grace.
I guess the best way I can put it personally, is that much like Ferris, at least in this one day, lives a charmed existence leading to something much bigger than its sum parts. His buddy, Cameron, finds the strength to confront his parents as their child, and not a possession. His sister, who isn't comfortable or happy with herself, finds a peace with who she is. Even the principle, Mr. Rooney, as kind of the object of scorn as an administrator who doesn't appear as much to enjoy being an educator as he does a disciplinarian (who doesn't like kids very much), gets his come uppance. His perceived life's ambition - move children toward conformity, not education - is defeated, letting creativity and cunning win the day. It's not like everything goes right.... Ferris' sister gets multiple speeding tickets and Cameron destroys his dad's prize Porsche - but this force that somehow delivers all the characters throughout the movie, prevails over all the characters, and they find peace within it.
That force which in the end brings healing and wholeness, would be described by Wesley as "grace"
The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL.... It is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. (John Wesley)
Because I've used a quirky John Hughes movie geared for teens growing up in the 80's as my quasi-illustration I don't want give you the wrong impression of what I'm talking about. Grace isn't about always getting a "happy ending". Every day doesn't always end with the hero winning the day, and the bad guys getting theirs. Rather, Grace is about ultimately being reconciled with - becoming friends - with God. Finding a peace with what's happened and what will happen, and the God who is behind the creation of all things. In grace we learn who we are, what the Lord wants, and in turn at least some of the mystery between us diminishes.
10 For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God -- all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in making us friends of God.
I told you earlier that without really articulating it at the time that the model I was probably using for my teen years was Ferris Bueller. I pushed a few boundaries and investigated what "having freedom" could lead to in terms of some good times and new experiences. That led to a great amount of self-discovery, and more than a little bit of fun. But I've felt like there was a force that now I would identify as God, somehow involved in His own way throughout that experience, looking to draw me closer to Him, sometimes in the worst of experiences.
One memory, among many, stands out pretty starkly. I was probably a junior or senior in High School away at church camp at Lakeside (just as 40 or so of our Middle and High School students will be later this summer). I remember distinctly stopping back at the cottage where we were staying to change into some basketball shoes, and as I was doing my best to just get out the house and down to the courts, I saw another, younger teen girl from our church sitting quietly writing into a notebook. Probably just to be nice, because at church camps I know now you beat on such themes so the ruffians will treat one another with a modicum of respect, I said hello to the girl and probably asked how she was doing, not really interested per se, but once again, just to be polite.
"I'm writing a suicide note", came the reply.
There aren't too many words put together in the English language that will stop you dead in your tracks much faster than "I'm writing a suicide note". You have to make a decision right there how you are going to respond even at 17 years old with few, if any, tools or life experience to deal with such a situation.
To be honest, I can't remember much what was said. She did most of the talking. Her home life wasn't great. She was lonely. She struggled with how she looked and how she was or wasn't accepted by others. She was crying out for help. All I was able to do at the time was try to keep her calm, convince her that talking to someone with more on the ball might be a good idea, and stay with her until that person appeared.
Fortunately, that person did, and I left pretty shaken for some time to process on a lone bench down by the lake.
All these years later, though, I can see where God was moving and active in that moment, overcoming my fear and youth, entering into that young girl's sense of being overwhelmed with depression and darkness, and using the adult available to help lift her out of the hole she was in. It wasn't a good experience, but it lead to greater peace. In fact, maybe it led to greater peace in me than it did to anyone else as it kind of foreshadowed where my life might be heading. I'm not 100% sure about all of that but it does seem that experiences like this one, and many many others, helped push me toward God, through doubt, into a place where I could embrace some mystery in faith.
I don't know... what do you think? Looking back now, can you see the hand of God working in your own life. Through your doubt, in the midst of your sin and mistakes...... moving you toward, if not a more certain place, a place of greater acceptance and peace?
It's not as if this movement of grace makes God "lesser" or "simpler" or "smaller". Shoot, the longer I do this ministry gig it seems like the less I seem to really know. But as death moves one day closer for each of us, and we confront what's on the other side of the grave, this idea that somehow in this life we start getting a clue as to what really matters and what makes a difference is at least moving more from conceptual, to actual. In the process, God may not become less mysterious in all of His ways, but your love, appreciation, and respect for the One who seems to have not missed even one tiny detail grows.
What a gas to think the love reciprocated is so much greater.
Grace, freeing us from sin, so we can become truly a friend of God. Amen and amen.