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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Grace, grace, and more grace

We are in the middle of a sermon series on Galatians and grace. Several weeks before the start of this series, I received an email which was sent to several "recovering legalists" (I actually prefer the phrase "recovering Pharisee" coined by one of the other members of this group of reformers). As each of us grew up in denominations or cultures of legalism, we were being asked to share our journey to grace as a follow-up to the sermon on our appointed Sunday. This was my day and The Good Doctor insisted that posting what I shared would be a good idea. And since he's always right...

(Note: This is the original version, the non-four minute version, the before-I-had-to-take-a-bunch-out version.)

"As one of the recovering legalists who was asked to speak during this sermon series, I’ve been spending time in Galatians at home, trying to condense my journey into three or four minutes. One thought kept coming back to me and that is how amazing Paul’s understanding of grace is in light of his former life, as someone who was considered a Jew among Jews, a follower of all the rules.

Paul’s credentials are found a few books after Galatians, in Philippians 3: 4b – 6, NIV

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But not being raised in the Jewish tradition, Paul’s credentials probably don’t make as much impact on me as they did for his original audience. I don't have any personal experience with circumcision, I know very little about which tribe is better than another, and I have never participated in the persecution of the church. Wanting to bring it a little closer to home, I tried a different translation – the Recovering Legalists Version…

Philippians 3: 4b – 6, RLV

If you think you have impressive credentials, I have more: dedicated to the Lord in the Mennonite Church as an infant and sprinkled in baptism at the ripe old age of accountability, of the Pennsylvania Dutch in the United States, from the Anabaptists of Germany, many of whom lost their lives at the hand of the Church, a strict and devout adherent to the do’s and don’ts of the conservative tradition, a quiet and fiercely humble defender of the purity of my religion and its unwritten yet strongly held laws, a Mennonite of Mennonites; in regard to the law, circling my wagons, steering clear of anyone not belonging to the faith, and making certain that I am in the world but not of it; as for righteousness based on the law, a meticulous and faultless observer of everything set down by tradition, years before my birth.

*Some late manuscripts include the following: 

as for the Mennonite Game, fluent; at Dutch Blitz, unbeaten.

Now it made sense to me – this worshiping of culture and the man-made rules of that culture. While I am very thankful for my Christian heritage and the family, church, and school in which I grew up, the rules, the man-made constraints, the false humility….and the lack of grace for myself and for anyone else who didn’t follow the rules of my denomination – were very clearly brought into the light, and I realized something that should have been obvious from the beginning…

God’s Grace gives me freedom to live my story and to let you live your story.

I have my grace story and you have your grace story.

God is the Author of our stories and He uses His Word, the Holy Spirit, and other trusted believers to guide us into our individual stories.

The thing about stories is that what draws us into a good story is not that it looks like all the others – but that each one is different, creative, and unique, fashioned by the most brilliant Author.

Growing up, too often my story was squelched by the constraints of man. The list of dos and don’ts was long and it’s purpose was to keep us in the world but not of the world; to protect us from that big, bad world out there. In this view of the world, there is little room for grace. It took me years to learn to give and to receive grace. Because if you’re a good first-born Mennonite girl, you follow all the rules. You feel like you don’t need grace because on the outside, you look like the perfect rule follower. And if you haven’t learned to receive grace, then you are really poor at giving it away. Really good at seeing those “other people” who obviously need grace because they aren’t following the rules, but terrible at giving grace.

How freeing to realize that if God has written my story, a story to bring Him glory, then that’s the only story I have to fit myself into. I was never made to fit into someone’s human constraints for my story.

And like Paul, my journey from works righteousness to grace involved a name change. Living a life of legalism had left me negative, bitter, and burdened. Living under a set of dos and don’ts will do that to you. It gives you the false perception that you are doing this Christian thing right and most other people are not. On the one hand you convince yourself that since you’re following the rules, you’re a good person. But deep inside, you know you’re not – your faults and shortcomings are all too obvious. Following the rules, you were led to believe, made you the perfect Christian. But your sin issues told you otherwise. And trying to hide the fact that you weren’t perfect, heaped on more guilt and shame.

It was a moment of breakthrough in my journey when about 12 years ago, during a time of prayer, I sensed that still, small voice saying, “I am giving you a new name. Your name is Joy.” It might not have been the lights and flashes Damascas Road experience of Saul-turned-Paul but the effect, for me, was the same. I knew I wasn’t joy-filled and only pretended to be so in front of others because, well, that was another one of the rules. The fact that Joy was my middle name was a powerful part of my transformation. I realized that God intended me to be Joy all along; but I just had been loaded down in the bondage of guilt and shame for so long that joy was non-existent.

It was a long and slow mind-set change for me, to learn that there isn’t a big, bad world out there that I need to protect my perfect, rule-following self from but that I was just as big and bad inside and just as in need of forgiveness and grace. I was created to follow the story written for me, receiving grace for the times I fail so that I can give grace to others - so that I can be an encourager to others on this journey to Christlikeness. So that I can give and model grace, grace, and more grace."

I knew it went well when a gentleman approached me afterward to say, "That was really great but as a pastor's wife I can't believe you wore pants to speak in church." I will admit to a moment's pause with just enough time to think, "I can't believe you would say that to me after a sermon on grace..." but then I realized who was speaking and that he was really saying, "I get it. I've been there. I'm a recovering legalist, too...and I'm just messing with your head!" 

1 comment:

  1. This is my story, too. I need daily reminders of the freedom in grace because I easily, sub-consciously drift back to the burden of the law.