Grace for Ourselves and Others

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This is a meditation on grace that I shared at our Ash Wednesday service.  It was based on Psalm 51.

Well, being from Indiana I am a basketball fan.  I’ve been a fan of the Indiana Pacers ever since they were in the ABA, used a red, white and blue basketball and played against the Virginia Squires. I also like the college teams – especially Purdue, Notre Dame, but mostly Indiana University.  IU is doing well this year – they have 19 wins and 5 losses this season and have been in the top twenty-five rankings.  And of course IU has all sorts of fans all over the state – some of them who put a lot of emotional energy into the game.

It was a couple of years ago.  IU was having an even better season than they are now.  They were standing at 20 wins and 2 losses.  They were playing Illinois.  It was a tough game but IU lost on a last second shot.  I was friends with another IU Fan on Facebook who wrote this on his Facebook page for everyone to see, “UNBELIEVABLE!!!! TOTALLY embarrassing, a NIGHTMARE – this season with the possibility of a Big ten title is OVER.  Really Guys!!!!!!!”  He used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points to get his point across. 

My first reaction to that post was that it was a lot of emotion for someone who probably never played the game at any level and doesn’t understand what it is like to compete against folks who are trying just as hard as you are to win the game.  And second the loss meant their record dropped to all of 20-3 and they were still tied for first place in the Big 10.  That’s pretty good   But here was somebody, a supposed fan, ready to write their season off because of a last second, two point loss.  Really?

Maybe one of the most important things for us to remember about life, is no single moment in our life, whether it is a moment of great accomplishment or a moment of stark failure, no single moment should be allowed to define who we are.  Life is much more complex than that.  We are much more than what we are at any single point in history.

For years, Lance Armstrong, was thought to be the ultimate champion, not only because of his seven bicycle victories in the Tour de France, but also because of his personal triumph over cancer and his Live Strong Foundation which supports those that battle that awful disease.  But then we learned because of investigations, and by his own word, that his bicycle victories included his cheating through performance enhancing drugs and his rise to the top included his willingness to lie and squash anyone who presented an obstacle to him.  Even with that information about being someone who lied and cheated his way to victory, someone who trampled on others, there were those suffering from cancer and their families who said that in spite of all that, Lance Armstrong would always be a hero to them for what he has done to help further cancer research and to inspire and support cancer patients.  So which is Lance Armstrong then - liar, cheat, manipulator or hero, inspiring champion?  Is he just one or the other or both and?  Does it depend on whether you were one of his bicycling competitors or whether you are one the cancer patients who have been inspired by him?

In the Psalm we have read today we have King David confessing profound sinfulness.  The result of being confronted by the prophet Nathan.  David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and when discovered he conspired to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed.  Imagine if David was our political leader and such a scandal broke out. There would be no stone unturned in getting that guy out of office and putting him behind bars, because no one is supposed to be above the law,  King David, corrupt, adulterer, murderer – yet the scriptures say that David was also a man after God’s own heart.  We still use the story of David defeating Goliath to inspire us to conquer the giants in our own lives.  And David’s words are scripture, the Word of the Lord.  Psalms 23 is the most often cited as one to be read in the most difficult time of the human journey the journey of death and grief.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, . . .” Aren’t those beautiful words – some of the most beloved in the whole Bible?  Well who wrote them- David the corrupt adulterer and murderer or David a man after God’s own heart?   One or the other, both/and.

What about Paul?  When the church was starting he was violently opposed to it.  When Stephen was stoned for proclaiming the gospel, the first Christian martyr, Paul was there and he did nothing to stop it.  In fact, the scriptures say that he approved of the killing.  It also says that he breathed “threats and murder” against those who followed Jesus. But then Paul himself became a follower and he ended up writing quite a bit of the New Testament and writing those powerful words about “clothing ourselves in love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Which was Paul – the one who approved of the stoning of Stephen, who breathed threats and murder against the church or the one who wrote about the importance of love?  Well he was both wasn’t he?

 What about you?  Is your heart always pure, always in the right place, you always do the right thing?  Or are there times when you have said, done or maybe even just thought, some of the things you are not proud of.

I have never been to one of my high school reunions.  I am afraid what would happen to people if they learned I was a minister.  There might be a heart attack or two – especially now that we are older. They knew who I was back then, who I ran around with, what I did, they couldn’t believe I was a minister not after those days.

We are neither the sum of our accomplishments, nor the total of our stark failures.  We are human beings, each of us, on a journey through life.  No snap shot of a single moment can define our journey, a panoramic view is a necessity for all of us.  And this is why grace is so important, not only to receive but to extend to others.

A last second, two point loss and someone is ready to write the entire season off. Have you ever done that with a person?  They fail one of life’s tests, they stumble, they fall – “Well that’s who they are, that’s all they are ever going to be, no use in wasting any time on them.”  Yet, isn’t the story of our faith the story of grace and second chances – and third and fourth chances.  This is even why we know of David, why we know of Paul.   God did not write them off nor cast them aside because of their failure.  And the same is true for so many of the biblical characters – Jacob, Moses, Peter, and Rahab.

I want to encourage you during this season of Lent to be full of grace. First toward yourself.  Your failures, whatever they may be, do not define you.  You are more than that.  I encourage you also to be full of grace toward others – their failures, whatever they may be are not what define them either.  Grace does not mean being naïve.  It doesn’t mean just allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.  It means, at least in part, that you give somebody the opportunity to get it right this time.  Peace be with you and all of us who need that additional opportunity.

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down... or we can all find hope

Lent begins today, the traditional 40 days (not including Sundays) of repentance and reflection.  We hear the familiar words: journeying towards the cross, giving up something for Lent to help us draw closer to God, repenting where we have gone wrong, etc. Lent can be dark and depressing. But Lent can also be refreshing, a time for self-reflection, a time to deepen one’s faith.  Many churches have turned away from the dreary darkness of Lent and the self-denial towards a brighter outlook—preparing for the resurrection, taking on a spiritual practice to deepen one’s relationship.  Lent can be almost a joyous time, as the days get brighter and warmer and Easter approaches.

This year, Lent falls in the heat of the election cycle.  The language is getting more intense, the attacks have become personal, to the point of attacking our president’s own religious beliefs by make assumptions and declarations based simply on the fact that the president has a different viewpoint on an issue than a candidate.  In our own local politics, at times we hear that real Christians vote with one political party and not the other.  It is enough to make one’s head explode with rage or make my stomach turn over.

However you look at Lent, it has traditionally been a time of self-introspection.  As the political climate has become volatile, perhaps this year we might take the time of Lent to look inward.  Do I allow my own anger and rage to consume my thoughts and actions?  Do I take cheap shots and aim at others with the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality?  Do I determine that all those who differ from me are truly evil, greedy, selfish and ignorant?  Do I become the very thing that I detest in others?

And maybe it’s time to look outward: how can I best model the life and ministry of Christ in my own actions?  How can I stand up for the poor, the sick and uninsured, the immigrant, the suicidal teen, the imprisoned, the oppressed, without taking on the attributes of those who make my blood boil?

This season of Lent, I hope that those of us who claim Christ and the name of Christian might look at how we are engaging the political sphere as followers and witnesses of Jesus.  How can we uphold the inherit worth and dignity of all persons, even those who would not include us in the faith?  How can we speak out on matters of justice authentically without taking on the rage and insults that often accompany political discussion?

It is hard to be authentic and be consistent with our faith and action.  The disciples couldn’t cut it.  Peter followed Jesus throughout his ministry only to draw a sword in the garden and then desert Jesus when he was arrested.  So we shouldn’t feel too awful when we fail to follow through all the time.  But we should strive to minister in the way Christ ministered to others—to be concerned about people more than issues, doing right more than “being right,” and proclaiming the Good News (the Gospel) instead of judgment and condemnation.

And this Lent, as the political rhetoric at times makes me want to vomit, I am reminded that beyond the cross is the Resurrection.  We will get through this.  We will make it to the promised hope.  We will see the New Life promised by Christ.  And we have this promise now—it is up to us to live into that New Life here on earth.  It does us no good to become just like those we disagree with when their actions don't follow up to how Jesus ministered, but in following Jesus, we are shown the better Way.  We can either live in the darkness and ashes, or we can do our part to live into the resurrection.