Archive for the ‘grace’ Category

I can never resisit excellent stuff from Tim Keller (ht: Denis Haack’s excellent blog,  A Glass Darkly)

There are two basic narrative identities at work among professing Christians. The first is what I will call the moral-performance narrative identity. These are people who in their heart of hearts say, I obey; therefore I am accepted by God. The second is what I will call the grace narrative identity. This basic operating principle is, I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.

People living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may superficially look alike. They may sit right beside one another in the church pew, both striving to obey the law of God, to pray, to give money generously, to be good family members. But they are doing so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, resulting in radically different personal characters.

When persons living in the moral-performance narrative are criticized, they are furious or devastated because they cannot tolerate threats to their self-image of being a “good person.”

But in the gospel our identity is not built on such an image, and we have the emotional ballast to handle criticism without attacking back. When people living in the moral-performance narrative base their self-worth on being hard working or theologically sound, then they must look down on those whom they perceive to be lazy or theologically weak.

But those who understand the gospel cannot possibly look down on anyone, since they were saved by sheer grace, not by their perfect doctrine or strong moral character.

To read the rest of this article (original source, “The Advent of Humility: Jesus is the reason to stop concentrating on ourselves,” by Tim Keller in Christianity Today, December 2008, pp. 50-53) click here.


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Useless Beauty

I spent the day painting at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C.   Ever since I registered for this particular workshop, called Painting the Amaryllis in Oil, my anticipation of this enjoyable weekend (the class continues tomorrow) has been mixed with odd twinges of guilt.  For the last several days, I’d recognized this but I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on why I was feeling that emotion. Was it because I was going to spend two eight hour days away from my family?  Was it because I’d spent a hefty chunk of change on the workshop fee – money which I should probably be saving for my next seminary class or, better yet, Ellie’s upcoming college tuition bills?

The answer hit me, in the middle of the day, as I slowly came up for air from a couple hours of concentrating on the shapes of six amaryllis petals on one particular stem.  I realized that my vague sense of guilt had been coming from the fact that I wasn’t taking a broad, drink from the fire hose, whole-lotta’ bang for the buck sort of class.  In other words, I wasn’t taking something that was immediately and perfectly “relevant” to my job of teaching art to high school students.  I didn’t intend to have them paint amaryllis any time soon, and I never teach oil painting, in the confined spaces of our tiny classrooms.

In other words, I’d been subtly giving in to the idea that I was doing something useless.

When that realization fully hit me, I immediately felt giddy with relief as my theology restored balance to what had been going on in my subconscious.   Useless? Useless? How could spending these hours immersed in seeing beauty ever by any stretch of the imagination, be considered useless for those who have been redeemed by the Creator of beauty?

Satan loves to trip us.  He uses all the obvious “sins”: bitterness, slander, thievery,  lust…  But I think he positively chortles with delight when he deceives us into barging through weeks at a time without taking the time to stop and see the “useless” beauty around us.  When our eyes glaze over and we don’t notice the pattern of the shadow cast by the bare tree branches on a bright winter day, or the contours of the sweet cinnamon-skinned hand of the noisy baby in the shopping cart ahead of us in the checkout line… When we can’t hear or taste or feel or see anything beyond our computer screens and the ugly overflow of ink in our datebooks… When our minds replay hurtful words and unjust losses until they hardly have room for anything else… THEN, Satan smiles.

So, the best part of my day today wasn’t the new oil techniques I discovered. It wasn’t that I spent the day with some excellent artists and enjoyed the personal attention of a favorite teacher.  It wasn’t even the excitement of painting in a studio with a view of the next door Capitol building, all gussied up for the coming inauguration (though I must admit, that was pretty cool.)  The best part of my day was remembering this: that to see – to loose myself in the seeingis to kick Satan in the teeth with one of the best gifts God’s given us.

Praising Him tonight for the grace of “useless” beauty. And thankful for how Satan is muted by the power of the shape of amaryllis petals…

And all delight in fine art, and all love of it, resolve themselves into simple love of that which deserves love. That deserving is the quality which we call ‘loveliness’ … and it is not an indifferent nor optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being.”
John Ruskin,
Traffic (1864)

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My friend Angie, from Bloggin-Dazs, posted a cheerfully curmudgeonly response to the Advent Conspiracy video. It’s worth checking out, because there is probably some good balance pointed out there. (Don’t you love the world of blogging just for that reason?) Her response reminds me, among other things, to keep in check any help-the-less-fortunate-by-being-sacrificial righteousness I might be subtly tallying up points for… Oh how very much I love to try to add just a smidge of my own goodness onto the righteousness of Christ….

Still, as I told Angie, I’m experiencing a pretty profound pendulum swing in my own life right now, away from the “freedom” I have to indulge in all the best things, particularly when that indulgence blinds me to the brokenness around me. I confess: I’m a 21st century American and I’ve anesthetized myself with “stuff” and I idolize comfort and pleasure (and really good red wine and expensive new watercolor brushes and not thinking twice about buying a four dollar cup of coffee and… you get the not so pretty idea, I’m sure.) So I’m standing by emailing that video to most everyone I know (sorry for those of you daily readers who got a double dose of the Advent Conspiracy) and I’m still chewing on how to make my family’s Christmas look a bit different this year.

The GOOD news is, Christ came FOR our tendency to imbibe OR abstain for wrong motives. He came FOR our neediness, because ultimately, we don’t “get it right” in anything we set out to do. Only clothed in the righteousness of that surprising Savior can we stand at all, and celebrate, enjoy, give, receive, relish, crave, laugh, weep, hunger, indulge, share… All to the glory of a God who accepts us as perfect.

Years ago, when I was a potter and not a painter, I used to write poetry for my Christmas cards. (The ceramic arts don’t lend themselves to multiple mailings, but now that I’ve started painting and printing, my Christmas cards usually have something of my year’s work on them.) One of the first Christmas “poems” I sent out was this one that follows, and I thought of it again today as I pondered how we deliberate even about how best to celebrate Christ’s birth. While we’re “trying to get it right,” it seems He’s busy doing what He always does: showing up for unlikely people in unlikely places with unexpected grace.


Happy Advent, dear friends. May you find Him beside you in unlikely places.


A Savior Unlikely

Once we were looking for Him in a palace

He came in a stable, His advent among us

Now we are looking for Him in a quiet place

A church all in darkness away from the fast pace


But Christ is among us now born in this madness

Of gay garish garland and glittering sadness

Once in a stable where cattle must lie

Now in a mall where what’s holy has died


What shall we call Him, our Savior unlikely?

Lord of the shopper and Lord of the donkey

Lord of what hardly appears to be holy

Lord born among all that’s showy and gaudy


If stars called to stables would wise men still follow?

Only Love’s birth can the unholy, hallow

In Advent midst tinsel and bauble and bead

A Savior unlikely comes born for our need


©H. Stevens, 1995

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Continuing on from yesterday:    

     As I’ve observed my own lack of functional belief regarding my position in Christ and seen how the lives of so many great men of God have been transformed by their own paradigm-shifting discovery of this truth, I’ve come to see the importance of it in a new light.  In fact, it seems to me that, second to a right understanding of how I am saved, a confident comprehension of my unshakable present position in Christ is the most essential principle I can learn.    

     When A.A. Hodge, wrote his Outlines of Theology in 1860, he carefully summarized the nature and foundation of the believer’s union with Christ, and explored the several analogies of scripture that help us to understand this doctrine.  Hodge’s outline is logically appealing: it is clear, concise, and supported with scripture proofs at every turn.  Because of the logical and academic structure of his presentation, one might almost miss the beauty of the truths expressed, but that they are so wonderful to apprehend.   I was especially struck when I encountered in the midst of his careful theological treatise a proclamation of blessing that shook me well clear of dry abstractions. After discussing the nature and establishment of the believer’s union, Hodge asks, “What are the consequences of this union to believers?”  His answer, although as carefully enumerated as what has come before, is like an outpouring of joy that the page can hardly contain. 

  • They have community with him in his covenant standing and rights
  • They are legally rendered “complete” in him
  • His righteousness is theirs
  • His Father is theirs
  • They receive adoption in him
  • Their persons and their services to God are accepted in Him
  • They are sealed by his Holy Spirit of promise
  • They in him obtain an inheritance
  • They sit with him on his throne and behold his glory 

     The list goes on most remarkably.   Hodge’s Outlines of Theology is available in the full text version through Google Books  or there is a reprinted version from Banner of Truth Trust available from monergism.com. 

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On the bulletin board above my desk at work, I have a quote that I’ve always heard attributed to Martin Luther which says:    

“God does not love us because we are worthy, we are worthy because God loves us, and for no other reason!”  

To say I need to think well on these words is to confess my own tendency to believe the very opposite of what they say.  Sometimes I boldly disbelieve them, going about my day with a remarkably pessimistic confidence that God is frowning.  More often still, I don’t even notice for hours how the wrong thinking that’s the antithesis of those words above my desk seeps into my mind and subtly sours my mood or motivation. And this is the way I get it all backwards: I don’t feel worthy, and so I don’t feel God’s love.   The elevation of those feelings above biblical truth creates a chronic underestimation of my own worthiness that I suspect drains my spiritual joy and effectiveness far more than I know.  I’ve become convinced that my wrong thinking is born of not understanding, or at least not rightly believing, the riches that are mine through my union with Christ. 

The doctrine of union with Christ, or some facet of it, has been of key importance to many of the greatest Christian minds of history. Time after time, it seems, radical transformation came for these men at the point when they began to understand the magnificence of what it means for a redeemed sinner to be “in Christ,” and thus began to praise and worship God with a freedom they had previously not known.  Theology, after all, cannot be merely dry abstraction; to study God and His ways is to seek to know the One who has revealed Himself in terms of relationship. As J.I. Packer says, theology is for doxology.   And while I believe we must always be mindful that we ourselves don’t become the center of our study, it seems hardly possible to know God apart from pursuing a thorough understanding of how He knows and relates to us.  Further, because how he relates to us is inextricably linked to how He relates to Christ, our understanding of our position in Christ will determine our estimation of our own worthiness of God’s love, and thus His pleasure, affection, and blessing. This understanding will shape the way we live our lives: confidently, assured that His love and affection for us will never be withdrawn or in fear, convinced that our actions will change the mood and blessing of a capricious God.  Understanding that God’s pleasure in us is based perfectly and irrevocably on His permanent pleasure in Christ is the key to Christian joy. 

How much time do you spend thinking about that union and its consequences for those who are His?  Does it change the way you think today? 

Here are a couple great resources for reading more about  the doctrine of Union with Christ. 

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1955)  

Ferguson, Sinclair, Children of the Living God (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989)

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For several years now, our family has been raising a small flock of sheep.  The breed we raise (Old English Southdown “Babydoll” Sheep) is terribly cute: fuzzy teddy-bear faces and small, stocky statures make them more desirable as living lawn ornaments or pets than as wool producers or meat stock. 

We’ve currently got ten sheep: Milton, Maude, Milly, Tilly, Ajax, Copernicus, Annie, Aggie, Beatrice, and Bertie.  We raise and sell the lambs of this small, registered, specialty breed, and though we’ve yet to become rich from the endeavor, we love this process of nurturing and tending these gentle animals at Saint Stephen’s Fold.


It’s lambing season, and when my daughters wake up each morning before school to go out and care for the flock, they know they might find that there’s been a new little one born during the night.  It adds a bit of excitement to the girls’ early morning chores and I’ve gotten so I can tell when I hear their feet pound up the back stairs and the door burst open at a certain speed that they have a birth to announce.


Last week, we rejoiced especially at the arrival of our first set of twins: adorable black ewe lambs who seemed at first to be healthy and strong.  We loved watching them nurse and frolic – there’s not much more hopeful than the arrival of warm spring air and playful baby lambs.  They jump about like frogs as they get used to their new, spindly legs, and they wag their long tails in happiness when they nurse.


A few days later, one of our new little lambs caught pneumonia and, within a few hours, went from a healthy baby to a pitiful little one crying and gasping for breath.  My daughters and I sat for an hour holding her and trying to warm her up.  We tried every remedy we knew, but eventually she died in my arms.  The weather outside had turned cold and bitter and, as I sat there holding that little body, it seemed that winter and darkness had come back to swallow up the joy of spring.


But it’s warm again today. The air has that “blowing away the snow” feel that’s so delicious in March.  One part damp and one part warm and earthy.  The wind smells like promises.   One of the ways God pounds into my head the truth of His faithfulness is with the consistency and dependability of the seasons in His creation.  No matter how many last, exasperating cold-snaps there are, Spring does come.   It can’t not come, in this orderly world created by an orderly God.   As I continue to wrestle with times of darkness that sometimes feel like they just won’t lift,  I have to remember that if God is God, and if I am His, the light can’t not come.  


We’re still waiting for more lambs to be born on our little farm.  I’m still waiting for the darkness to be blown away for another season of respite.  Trusting that it will be, because God is God, and God is good. 


Happy first day of Spring.


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I’m just a few days into the creation of this new blog now, and I’m having fun, but still wondering exactly why I’m doing this.  How much of blogging is a quest for self-validation and affirmation?  How much is a right seeking of like-minded community and encouraging discussion?  How much is me-centered and how much is Kingdom-centered?  Is there real beauty to be found in this type of creational endeavor?  

When I teach art history to my students, one of my chief goals is to help them to see that no painting or sculpture or building we discuss can really be appreciated without an understanding of the culture in which it was created and the history which came before it.  Beauty is built upon beauty, and imitation and novelty are more closely related than we tend to think.  I love to see the spark when a student really begins to know enough to make the connections for themselves: when they can see the pictures behind the picture and the influence of the past on the present.  The masterpieces I project on a screen in a darkened room begin to have meaning when they are connected to something bigger than the sum of the paint on a particular canvas, and my students usually only begin to appreciate beauty after they understand that part of their enjoying a painting comes from enjoying its hidden history.           

The older I get, the more I see the importance of telling my own story correctly and with context, because if there is to be anything rich, anything winsome, anything of beauty to be told, it is only going to found within a history that goes beyond myself and is intimately bound up in a bigger story.  I admit I’m learning this gradually – and sometimes grudgingly.  My idol of self-focus often compels me to think that my life is worth looking at or talking about on its own, but as soon as I begin to organize on a page the events that have shaped me, it becomes embarrassingly clear that they are unspectacular in the eyes of the world.  In the arena of faith, I have no cataclysmic conversion story to tell, and no particularly tremendous tales of tragedy or testing beyond what others have had to bear.  In my career, I have no grand accomplishments to present, nor do I perceive that I am on the cusp of greatness, ready to shake the world but for a few final steps of preparation.  God has worked His grace in my life quietly and faithfully, and I have only grateful and insufficient observations to share.  If there is beauty in this story, it will only come from the sense in which it is a part of God’s bigger story, in calling and preserving a people for His own.  I am one of His, and that is the context that will give my story any goodness.  

Why do you blog? 

 Psalm 115

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