Steve’s Letter – August 2014
AUGUST 4, 2014
I’m teaching a seminary course this week, Radical Grace. It’s every day, all day Monday to Friday, and quite intense in terms of lectures, content and hours. So if this month’s letter seems a bit disjointed, cut some slack for the old guy, okay?
The course isn’t a requirement, but the counseling department urges their students to take it and that combined with the regular students makes for a rather large class. The Radical Grace course is my favorite one to teach for a number of reasons not the least of which is watching “lights go on” all over the class as students get over their shock and disbelief.
A number of years ago, I participated in a brown bag lunch for students at the seminary. They asked questions and were quite disturbed by some of the things I had said in my talk. A professor (who loves me, whom I love and who was trying to help) stood up and said, “Now, let me explain what Steve is talking about in some terms that are a bit less radical sounding.” He then proceeded to soften what I had said and, in fact, softened it to the point where what I had just said and taught wasn’t what I had said and taught at all. While he was explaining me, I thought I would correct him, but finally just decided to let it pass. I remained silent.
I remember driving home that day and feeling dirty. I told God that it would never happen again. I would never again allow what he had clearly taught in Scripture to be ameliorated by anyone…even by someone who loved me and meant well.
We have a cartoon in Key Life’s lobby that shows a pastor standing before a very traumatized and shocked congregation with the caption, “Now Steve didn’t mean exactly what you think he meant.”
Yes, I do.
I mean exactly what I teach and, no matter how shocking, heretical and radical it sounds, it’s exactly what the Bible teaches about grace. In fact, it is the essence of the Christian faith. In our efforts to be religious, right and righteous, we sometimes forget how shocking and counterintuitive the message really is. Telling Christians that God will never be angry at them no matter what they do, where they go or how badly they screw up can be disconcerting, but it can also be exciting to watch as students start to understand, knowing that they will then teach it to others.
But with that being said, when I went over to teach this morning I would rather have gone to the dentist. I don’t need the job, the hours of lecturing are insane, and when I finish teaching the course it doesn’t stop there because I’ll then have a stack of papers to grade as high as the ceiling. God isn’t going to love me less if I don’t teach the course and he certainly won’t love me more because I do. Not only that, I don’t have the time to teach the course. I have this other job at Key Life and it doesn’t stop when I’m teaching at the seminary.
Then why are you doing it, dummy? Are you crazy?
Let me tell you why.
Paul wrote, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). I get that and it has, in fact, become a kind of reminder to never back off, to never compromise the gospel, and to never rob people of the good news that religion can take away. You’re forgiven. God will never say that he’s had it with you. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and when Christ died and said it was finished, it was finished.
When Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms (and no, that’s not a new high protein diet) in 1521 and told to recant his teaching, he said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” I am, of course, no Martin Luther. It is just a seminary class; but nevertheless, for me not to speak truth whenever and wherever I get an opportunity is like asking a tree not to have leaves or the sun not to shine. It’s what I do and I can’t help it.
But it’s a lot more than that.
When John Wesley first began to understand the gospel and that salvation came by faith in Christ, he asked a Moravian friend how he (Wesley) could preach faith if he didn’t have faith. He was given this advice: “Preach faith until you have faith and then because you have faith, you will preach faith.” That is a kind of “fake it until you make it” admonishment that doesn’t work if what you preach isn’t true. But if what you preach and teach is true, then it affirms reality.
There’s an old story about a preacher who was going to be fired but the congregation decided instead to keep him. When asked why, one of the elders said, “If he went somewhere else, they might believe him.” I sometimes think that the only reason I do what I do is that God knew if he didn’t put me in front of God’s people so they could watch me, I would run at the first opportunity. While that could be true, I do know that teaching the unconditional nature of God’s love and grace makes it true to me…because it is true.
I sometimes forget. I sometimes think that I have finally gone too far to be brought home. There are places in my life where I struggle to hold on, where I have my doubts about his love for me, and where I think, nothing could be this good. But when I teach others, something happens to me and I find myself dancing again. So I don’t go to the seminary to teach or a pulpit to preach or a conference to speak…for them. I do it for me.
But there is more. I’m not without compassion for others. I know people, people are my business and I am “people.” It’s so easy to get discouraged. All my life I’ve been around people with broken hearts who have secrets they can’t share and sins they can’t shake. I’ve listened to a lot of confessions and I’ve felt what Jesus felt. You hang out with him long enough, and you start feeling what he feels and caring the way he cares.
Matthew wrote, “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Harassed and helpless without a shepherd. I see a lot of that. I’ve often prayed that I would see what Jesus sees, feel what Jesus feels, and think his thoughts after him. Sometimes I do, and when I do, I tell people about the real God who is kind, merciful and gracious.
One other thing. I’m sometimes harassed and helpless too. Martin Luther said that we should preach the gospel to each other lest we become discouraged. I need people and students to preach back to me. You do too.
During one of the breaks yesterday, I went out on the patio to smoke my pipe. One of the students followed me and said, “Mr. Brown, do you want to hear a good story?” I told him that I would sell my soul for a good story. “Good,” he said, “you’ll like this one because it’s true.”
The student told me about his little sister who wrote him a letter for his birthday. She wrote about how much she admired him and the way he was so good and kind, and followed Jesus so closely. “I had been listening to you all day,” he said, “and realized that she thought I was perfect. I also knew that I needed to tell her the truth. So I went to her room, sat down and began to confess my sins to her. She asked why I was doing it and I told her that I was afraid she would think that God loved us because we are good and I didn’t want her to think that.”
Then this young man said his sister began to cry. “I just held her and let her cry,” he said. “I asked her if she thought she had to be perfect in order to get God to love her. She nodded her head and I told her she didn’t have to do anything. God loved her just the way she was. She said through her tears, ‘Why?’ I didn’t know what to say so I said to her, ‘He loves you because you’re his. That’s all.’”
I thought I heard the angels sing.
My student smiled and said, “I knew you would like that.”
The story of God’s love is a story that needs to be told. When we tell it to one another, all sorts of good things happen. When we don’t, Jesus still loves us, but we miss the power of the story in our own lives.
So go out and tell somebody, okay? He asked me to remind you.