Grace:How We Respond and Are Transformed

The following is a sermon I developed from a class series. I adapted these lessons into sermons to preach to the men at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, Alabama.

Grace:How We Respond and Are Transformed

Grace is something we talk about often, but what is it? How do we understand grace? It’s an extremely deep and important topic for Christians to talk about, study, and understand. As we discuss grace, let’s look at what grace is, how we should respond to grace, and how grace transforms us initially and continually as new creations of God.

You’ve probably hear grace referred to as an “undeserved gift” and that’s true, but grace runs so much deeper and wider than a short definition.

The English word grace comes from the Greek word charis, which loosely translated means “gift”. You have probably seen or heard the word charisma which usually describes someone who is a gifted speaker or leader. Some groups of Christians are charismatic which indicates they believe in gifts that God imparts to them by the Holy Spirit. But, no matter how see grace, it really comes down to something we can never and will never deserve or earn.

Let’s look at a couple of passages to see how grace works. Eph 2: 4-10 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The first thing I notice in this passage is that god gave His grace when we were completely helpless or “dead”. There was no chance that we could participate in our salvation and there still isn’t!

This reminds me of the promise made to Abraham in Gen 15. Let’s read this and see how God gives grace to Abram and as a result to us!

This is illustrated later by Paul to the Romans in Romans 4:1-5 “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” So, the promise given freely to Abraham because he believed is also given to us freely as we accept God’s truth in faith and are clothed with Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection.

Rom 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Remember, grace is a free gift. You can’t earn it! If you try to earn it, grace disappears and is replaced by the law which cannot save.

So, ultimately, you cannot earn your own salvation. It must be accepted as a gift from God. So, when we hear God’s word it is a gift to hear. When we believe, we accept the gift of belief in Jesus. When we repent or turn away from sin, Jesus is the gift we turn toward. When we confess or tell the truth that Jesus is Lord, it is due to the fact that He is a gift to us; the very gift of truth! When we are baptized, it is not us doing the baptizing, but the acceptance of the gift of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. And finally, we receive the Holy Spirit who is called a gift in Acts 2:38. And it is this most special Gift Who creates in us a continual river of cleansing as Jesus told the Samaritan woman in John 4 and confirms again later in John 7. Grace is amazing!

Grace is not a simple, straightforward concept. We often want to simply look at grace and say, “wow! Grace is awesome!” And it is! But, grace is not necessarily a treasure that falls out of the sky, so to speak. Sometimes grace comes to us in ways that are harder to understand.

One of these ways, I believe, is characterized by Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians.

Look at 2 Cor 12:5-10 with me. Paul gives us an interesting look into grace that is different from any other you might have seen:

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What “grace” do you think Paul is referring to here? What does God mean when He tells Paul “My grace is sufficient”?

Have you ever been in a place in life where you were filled with pride and refused to see the truth about a situation or refused to acknowledge you were wrong or going the wrong way? I have. I believe in this passage, Paul is recognizing this about himself. In this case, the gift that God gave him hurt. It was there to correct him and guide him back toward God. I believe that sometimes grace can hurt. Just like a shot hurts but heals, grace also might present discomfort or pain with the final effect of restoring you to God.

This is not to say that grace always hurts. In fact, most of the time we can feel completely uplifted by grace as a gift that has wiped out and continues to heal all areas of our lives. Things like pride, selfishness, envy, jealousy, fear, anger, and hate are taken away and we are healed.

So, how should we respond to this gift? I believe it’s all about reciprocating the reason behind the grace, namely love. And it is love that leads us into how we are transformed by grace.

How has God’s grace changed you? How should His grace change you? Think about a gift you have received at some point in your life. Christmas will be here soon and many gifts will be given, but these gifts are often expected due to the nature of the holiday itself. But, what about something a person does for you for no reason other than they love you? What does that make you want to do for them? Does it change you? Does it change your view of them and maybe even your relationship with them? What if that person pushed you out of the way of danger or death and died in your place? How would that change you?

This is all to point out that if you have not experienced a change because of God’s grace, you probably haven’t really considered the Father’s gift of Jesus and the Spirit. A gift like that can, should, and must change you; transform you in many significant ways! If you fully recognize the full gift from God, transformative love can and will overflow you. And there is the transformation.

Paul in his letter to Titus puts it this way: Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

How does grace “train us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives”? Think about that…It really has everything to do with how we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the gift we have received. If I  truly, deeply love someone, I will do everything in my power to be closer to them. I will give up sin, I will live a different way, I will be completely and utterly transformed by love because I have been loved.

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Courage and Compassion Audio Lesson

Courage and Compassion

courage and compassion

I recently delivered a lesson at my home church to my brothers and sisters about Courage and Compassion. It was a lesson specially written and delivered for the 2017 Childhaven Thanksgiving Appeal. Childhaven is a home for orphans and fatherless children. Dalraida church of Christ supports this home monthly, but the Thanksgiving Appeal is a special extra opportunity to help. If you’d like to listen to the lesson, just click on the link below! Thanks!

2017 Childhaven Thanksgiving Appeal at Dalraida church of Christ “Courage and Compassion” November 5, 2017

Raca: Christian Contempt in the Public Square

Raca: Christian Contempt in the Public Square

Counseling

Have you ever been in a discussion with a group of people and posited an idea that drew an expression of utter condemnation? Were you shocked by the other person’s or people’s contempt? Does this happen often when you speak to a group of people in person?

The answer to the last question, and perhaps the others as well, is probably “No”. These kinds of situations, especially among ordinary, everyday people who are generally kind and gentle, rarely or never happen. People, who speak in group settings especially, are usually quite civil and reasonable. This is even more true (or at least it should be) with people who are followers of Jesus.

Unfortunately, what many people have observed in most social media environments is a common incivility, condemnation, and contempt coming from people who otherwise would be civil and reasonable. Something about sitting alone in front of their computer, or other, screen makes them susceptible to the idea that they alone exist and they alone have the most cogent answers to most important (or at least controversial) questions. It’s a sort of modern solipsism.

This leads us to the interesting Aramaic word translated as “Fool”, Raca. It is taken from the Aramaic “reqa” which means “empty-headed”. It is considered one of the most insulting terms of contempt in Jewish culture. This word in the context of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:22 reads as follows:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

This is a cause for concern in the context of social media. Too many times, Christians find a way to say something like, “You’re a fool if…” or “You’re an idiot if…” indicating that they not only cannot see the other person’s point of view they will not.

This is the thrust of Raca. It means that the other person’s view is worthless to you and you have no problem saying it. It means that you have the superior view in your own eyes and you have no interest in even considering that you are wrong, no interest in a discussion that might bring you closer to truth. It means that you have contempt for another human being, created in God’s image, who has value and feelings. Raca is dehumanizing. It’s the ultimate way or “writing someone off” and dismissing them as nothing. It’s cruelty; a spit in the face.

This is completely counter to the Way. Jesus’ Way is about listening and responding with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. The Way is about loving your human brother and sister (whether Christian or not) so that you can truly love God whom you have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Leviticus 19:17 says it well, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.”

There are many problems with contempt in the life of a Christian, but here are a few important ones:

  1. Contempt drives people away from Jesus
  2. Contempt promotes a very negative stereotype of Christians
  3. Contempt poisons those who feel and show it from the inside and outside
  4. Contempt stops conversation, not only in the middle but possibly for good, causing people to never resolve a matter or get to the truth about a matter
  5. Contempt is completely unnecessary and anti-intellectual
  6. Contempt is based on fear and disdain, not love
  7. Contempt will never win someone over. It only pushes people farther away

Raca should have no place in the hearts, minds, or conversations of Christians, not even toward those who hate us. We have to be ready to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29). This doesn’t mean that a person standing for truth should give up, but it does mean that we must never make a statement out of fear or hate. After all, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Be courageous in love family of God!

Identity

identity-in-christ

Who Am I?

People wrap their identities in where they came from, who their parents are, or even what sports team they pull for. Their primary characterization of themselves is all about something in this physical reality. But, for a Christian this is a real and spiritually fatal problem.

There are a couple of primary issues that come to mind when we as Christians consider who we are. One, of course, is the fact that we are supposed to be ONE in Christ. This is an issue that has been on God’s mind since before the creation. Just look at what Jesus says in John 17: 23-24:

I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

God wants us to have unity in Him! He wants us to identify ourselves as a body of believers who hold Him up as our single point of honor, glory, and praise!

This unity has everything to do with identifying ourselves as His. God wants us completely. He wants us undividedly! This goes all the way back to Ex 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”

God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are the center of who we are.

This being said, we also have to understand WHY God is the center of who we are, not just as a body of believers, but as individuals.

For everything else that scripture tells us about who God is and who we are, the one most defining fact that stands out is that we are individually created in God’s image.

But, what does it mean to be created in God’s image?

While both humans and animals are referred to as “nephesh chayyah” (living souls), the Scriptures make it clear that God did something special in reference to man. Genesis 1:26-27 records: “And God said, Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. …And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” Nowhere does the Bible state or imply that animals are created in the image of God. This fact leaves us with the special distinction of a closeness to God that is lacking in the remainder of Creation. As God’s image-bearers, we have souls and spirits that allow us a privileged position within God’s created order. This understanding and ability to not only have dominion over the Creation, but understand it by way of observation and study, allows human beings the envied ability to see the universe for what it is; a physical manifestation of God’s awesome love for us all.

I use this illustration (Figure 1, God’s Image) to describe to the sixth grade Bible class I teach each year how God can be three, but one. As image bearers of God, we also possess three parts of a whole, (1 Thessalonians 5:23). This similarity agrees completely with the fact that we are created in God’s image. If God is three-in-one, then as beings who are modeled after Him, we should maintain the same properties. That is not to give the false impression that we are divine in any way, but to simply draw a parallel between the nature of human beings and a God who desired to make His pinnacle of Creation like Himself.

InHisImage

Figure 1, God’s Image

In the end, we as individuals are three in one, Image Bearers of God! Our entire identity is wrapped up in Him and Who He is! We must never let this escape us, but live each day as people whose identities are indelibly conjoined to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

My Wife’s Impending Surgery

The GoFundMe site is HERE! Thanks so much for praying, Sharing, and helping!

My wife, Rachel, needs a craniocervical fusion and Chiari decompression surgery.  Without this surgery, she experiences extreme pain and disability, and risks sudden death due to stroke, aneurysm, apnea, or as the result of any single whiplash injury.

Rachel’s skull slides back and forth out of place on her spine by 8 millimeters (a safe maximum is 1 mm), damaging her brainstem, arteries, and nerves.  Her cerebellum is blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) at the base of her skull, dangerously increasing the pressure in her brain.  She has temporarily been put in a hard cervical collar to prevent further damage and alleviate symptoms, until surgery can be performed.

We need help raising money for her surgery and associated travel expenses.  The surgery is scheduled for June 20, 2017, at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham, MD.

Rachel’s brain and spine issues are caused by a rare, genetic connective tissue disorder called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS). Surgery is much more complicated and risky in the EDS population, and specialized knowledge is required to ensure a successful or even safe outcome. There are no EDS-knowledgeable surgeons in our home state of Alabama or even in neighboring states. Dr. Fraser Henderson is the expert in Rachel’s condition, and he is the surgeon we have chosen to trust with her life.

If you would like to know more, you can view a video of Dr. Henderson speaking about her condition (craniocervical instability), associated symptoms, and treatment here:

Dr. Henderson’s Lecture on CCI

About Rachel

Some of you know Rachel, but for those of you who do not, I’d like to tell you a little bit about her.  Rachel is a dedicated mother and wife. She loves her family deeply and fiercely. When she was still able, she took care of our home and two little boys, all while working as a tech support specialist from home. She was active in our church, giving of time, money, and herself.  She coordinated Vacation Bible School for the Dalraida church of Christ for many years. She often volunteered at the children’s school (Redland Elementary School in Wetumpka, AL), teaching art projects or decorating classroom doors.


In her work, Rachel seldom took a day off despite her suffering.  She could often be seen working mobile in doctors’ waiting rooms, even going so far as to take a work call while being put under sedation for a painful procedure.  As a talented artist, Rachel was a founding and active member of the South Alabama Fiber Enthusiasts (SAFE) Guild and a consistent participant in Montgomery’s Atrium art group. In this capacity, she not only made her own art, but encouraged and promoted the work of her friends in the local art community.

Portrait of Elaine, Rachel Sipper 2016

Since she was diagnosed, Rachel’s health has deteriorated significantly, robbing her of her ability to show her talents and be there for others. However, she still reaches out in any way she can through social media, supporting many who are going through similar pain and loss as a support group member and administrator. Rachel uses her mind and heart to help others in any way possible, continuing to show her beautiful love and compassion. Although Rachel hasn’t been able to draw or paint in some time, she has a website where you can see her most recent work:

Rachel’s Charcoal Portraits

Rachel has had a long road in fighting chronic illness.  It began about ten years ago, and in that time she has seen dozens of specialists and surgeons.  She has collected multiple diagnoses and endured treatment after treatment, experiencing countless prescriptions’ side effects and many painful procedures in an effort to treat an ever-growing cluster of symptoms that have encroached on her ability to live a normal life.  Between 2013 and 2014, Rachel had three separate surgeries in pursuit of head and neck pain relief alone.


Eventually, she put together the puzzle herself, discovering that she fit the profile of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome to a T.  She requested a geneticist’s evaluation in 2015, and Dr. Descartes at UAB confirmed that she did indeed have hEDS.  By the summer of 2016, Rachel had become homebound and disabled, unable to participate in even the most basic life experiences.  She had to stop making art, because looking down at the paper caused blackouts and nausea.  Her world has now shrunk to the size of our bedroom; she can’t even tuck our children into bed at night, or wash her own hair without my assistance.  She leaves the house only to go to doctor’s appointments, and no longer drives at all.

The decade of doctors’ visits, treatments, and surgeries has cost our family tens of thousands of dollars.  Rachel lost her job when she lost the ability to drive.  Our high medical costs every month, combined with the loss of Rachel’s job, have caused us extreme financial hardship.  We are relying on family and friends to get her the medical help she needs now.

This upcoming brain and spine surgery is the most promising treatment we have found for Rachel’s symptoms.  It cannot take away her genetic condition, but it can relieve the worst of its symptoms for her.  By stabilizing her spine, decompressing her brainstem, and making room for her CSF to flow freely, Dr. Henderson hopes to restore a great deal of function to Rachel’s life and relieve the incredible pain she has to endure on a daily basis.

Cost Breakdown

We will need an estimated total of $13,516 to get Rachel the surgery she needs and stay in Washington, DC for two weeks.  We were hoping to raise about half of that amount here: $6,758.

Unbelievably, we reached that amount in less than one week of fundraising! Thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. Since we planned to keep the GoFundMe up for six weeks (up to the surgery date), we are now going to shoot for the full amount (plus the 8% that goes to GoFundMe). If we make it, we won’t have to go into debt borrowing that other half. Again, we are in awe and so very grateful for the generosity we’ve already been shown!

Below is the breakdown of our cost estimate, so you can see where all the money is intended to go.  The children will only be with us in the DC area for one week in order to reduce our costs, accompanied by Rachel’s parents since they cannot stay overnight in the hospital with us.

Medical: $10,266

Deposit for Dr. Henderson- $7,326
Estimated durable medical equipment cost- $2,100
Hospital Copays and Rx- $840

Travel: $3,250

Food & Kids’ Lodging- $2,170
Transportation & Incidentals- $1,080

Update: Since GoFundMe charges an 8% fee, we’ve adjusted our fundraising goal to $7,300 to absorb that charge.

A Note from Rachel

Hi everyone, and thank you so much for taking the time to get to know my story.  I understand that not everyone can donate.  Even a few dollars can really add up when many people come together, so please consider helping us out with any amount at all.  My dearest hope is to get back to any level of “normal” at all, one where I can participate fully in all the beautiful moments life has to offer.  I want to play with my children, go out on a date with my husband, participate in my community, and maybe even get back to my passion, making art.  I have a stack of canvases, a set of oil paints and brushes, and a brain full of ideas just waiting to be something amazing.  Please help me make it happen.  Love to you all.  -Rachel