the grace of God that wounds

I was a good kid. I made high A’s all through school and the extent of my rebellion to my parents was how low I would grow my sideburns. I led worship at my church throughout high school, and then again with our student ministry in college, and I would often speak/preach when given an opportunity. I learned how to be socially adept and maintain friendships with many people, so that my friends would jokingly use terms like “social butterfly” and “friend whore” to describe me. And I had a relationship with Jesus that seemed earnest, and I knew that I needed Jesus.

But I didn’t really need Jesus.

I knew that God sent Jesus to save sinners like me, and I knew I was a sinner, but I really didn’t think I was that much of a sinner. I didn’t do that many sinful things. I knew about the grace of God, but grace seemed more to me like good things I deserved because I was good. I was a good kid! Why wouldn’t Jesus save me? Grace was just for those few times I slipped up and looked at pornography or lied to my parents about being in my dorm when I was really at my friends’ place.

I knew that the gospel was good news, but honestly, the bad news didn’t seem that bad, at least for me. School was going great, my parents bragged about me, my church family loved me, my friendships were great, and I did all the things a good Christian leader was supposed to do.

But then I felt God calling me to vocational ministry, and I switched my life about. And in fear of the consequences, I wasn’t so forthright about it. My parents and extended family eventually found out and didn’t take this so well, because it had seemed clear that God was actually calling me to be a doctor or some other prestigious vocation.

There were many tears shed and hurtful words shared. We went from talking almost daily to me talking to my mom maybe once a week. I hardly talked to my dad at all. My grandparents didn’t know what to say to me except to look at me in sadness and my church family just didn’t talk about it. School seemed to take a turn for the worse. I ended up hurting close friends, and I was hurt by close friends. I was in a relationship that ended suddenly, and for the first time, it wasn’t amicable. I was hurting and cowering in the darkest shadows of my life, and I didn’t know who to reach out to. I tried to portray cool confidence and trust in God, but I was floundering. I was confused and depressed and heartbroken and angry and anxious. There were even several times where I thought that the best way to deal with it all was by ending everything. And several times where I almost did.

And all this brought me to a place of deep introspection and crying out to the God I claimed to love and serve.

Slowly, layer by layer, relationship by relationship, God began showing me things I had never seen before. I realized that I was selfish and hurtful and greedy and arrogant and sexually immoral and wicked — all without having to do any specific actions. That was just how my mind and heart was bent! God showed me how silly it was that I prided myself in my “humility” and self-deference. He humbled me by unveiling the fact that I was capable of causing so much destructive damage in my relationships with people. He exposed a heart that sought comfort in temporal things rather than on eternal things. He revealed that self-approval was the idol I worshiped at, and my identity wasn’t really found in Christ, but ultimately in how people perceived me.

It felt like life was beating me up, but when I thought upon the sovereignty of God, it dawned on me that my world wasn’t rocked upside-down by chance, but by the grace of God. He had brought me to this place! And it was one of the greatest displays of love I had encountered personally. It was a gift of the grace of God. 

In love, he had brought me to that point to show me my brokenness. I had always been broken, I just refused to see it. In love, he had wounded me so that he could reveal his goodness. So that he could reveal his love in binding me up. He had knocked my legs out from under me, so that I could be on my knees before him. He bruised me to show me why the Son of God was bruised. To show me why the gospel was such good news.

The depravity of man (the fallen nature we’ve all inherited ever since our ancestor Adam felt like rejecting God was a good idea) began to be a real thing I knew not only in theory, but in experience. Sin wasn’t just things I did, but the posture of my heart. As I began to see myself for who I am, I began to see why I so desperately needed Jesus! I was a mess, and no amount of self-help would ultimately fix my heart. I turned to the only One I knew to turn to.

I was spiritually dead, and Christ came into my dead-ness and caused me to be un-dead, to have life, and new life in him! He had saved me from sin, from death, from myself. And by the grace of God, he has healed my brokenness — and my relationships.

I am thankful for the grace of God displayed in the perfect life, sin-absorbing death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that this same Jesus is coming again! It is the gospel that changes everything!

But I’m also thankful for the gift of the grace of God that sometimes, He wounds us in love.

“Let me hear gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” – Psalm 51:8
“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down , and he will bind us up.” – Hosea 6:1
Image Credit: Courtney Celley 
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race and reconciliation

The world is broken.

On the eve of our annual holiday of celebrating what we’re thankful for, our country lies divided over what has transpired in Ferguson, Missouri. In August, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer, which prompted riots in the city, and outrage around the nation. Last night, a grand jury decided to not indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, and the tension in America is palpable.

I don’t want to enter into a debate of guilt or innocence or safety or facts. I wasn’t there and I don’t know every single fact about the case. My heart is heavy and breaks for both sides. What I do know is that this is not the only situation where there has been an outcry of racial injustice. Being a brown man, I am certainly not a stranger to racism. But even then, I had always assumed that if you don’t give people a reason to distrust you, you’ll be fine.

And then I began having conversations with my black friends about how they often get pulled over while driving and questioned. Frisked and treated gruffly, sometimes shoved against their cars — without citation. Suspiciously eyed and accused of shoplifting when walking through stores. These friends aren’t thugs, they look and talk a lot like me! And strangely, these are not conversations I’ve ever had with my Indian, Asian, or white friends. I get “randomly” screened a lot at airports, but I’ve never been pulled over for suspicion of possession. I’ve driven many a late night and I’ve never had a cop ask me why I’m driving around this neighborhood this late at night. .

This is not an accusation of police officers; on the contrary, I am incredibly grateful to the men and women who daily put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can live in safety. What they do is something we all take for granted, and I thank them. I also do not think most white people are racist; most of the white men and women I know have shown me otherwise.

What I am saying is that everyone’s experience of “freedom and justice for all”  has certainly not been the same. We’re all viewing these situations differently because we’re all viewing these situations through the lenses of our own experiences. And our own experiences are very different. That is something we need to address.

Black people are often accused of turning everything into a race issue. Most of the rest of us don’t understand because we haven’t been subjected to systemic prejudice the way our black brothers and sisters have. Most of us don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t trust a civil servant because most of us have never had a reason to not trust a civil servant. We don’t want to talk about racism because we want to think we’ve moved past it. Clearly we have not.

The frightening thing is that most of us may not actually have racist thoughts or biases… and yet still choose to walk on the other side of the road by failing to acknowledge or ignoring the beaten and bruised Samaritan in the street. Ignoring our hurting brothers and sisters is not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

So how do Christians respond to this? I think the first step is to speak less, and to listen more. Instead of looking to CNN, Fox News, or Facebook for perspectives and “facts,” let’s engage people in dialogue. Instead of ranting about justice or lack of justice, pick up the phone. Ask your black friends why they’re so hurt by what’s gone on in Ferguson. Listen to their stories of their experiences of being colored in America. Ask yourself why communities are rioting and why people are mourning. Observe the pain, and ask why?

This is not just an issue of “facts”. Uncovering “facts” will not heal wounds because these wounds are emotional wounds, and they have their context in each person’s story. Healing begins when we sit side by side with our hurting brothers and sisters and understand where they’re coming from. Healing begins when we come along side them and mourn with them and pray with them and advocate for them. Christians, we must step in.

Let’s pray for the family of the victim. They’re hurting in so many ways. Let’s pray for those who feel betrayed by the justice system. And we must also pray for the officer and his family. They may be in danger for a long time, and for the rest of his life, Officer Wilson has to live with the fact that he killed someone. Let’s pray for healing and safety for them.

In all of this, one thing is certain: the problem is sin. The solution is the gospel. All of us (black, white, Indian, Asian, Latino) are broken people capable of incredible evil. Michael Brown was broken with sin. Wilson is broken with sin. You and I are broken with sin. The only thing that can ultimately fix us is the gospel of Jesus Christ that we all so desperately need. Not laws, not anger, not punishments, not education, not government. Let’s remember that as we talk about Ferguson and how to move forward. Let us be a people who seek the repentance, love, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation that are all possible in Christ Jesus.

when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

sick cycle carousel

I’ve had several things I’ve wanted to write on the last month, and what’s more, I’ve had more time than I’ve had in almost a year! But I’ve been stuck in a bit of a writer’s block as soon as I get part way into  the post. And what I’ve slowly come to realize is that I had another issue I had to write about first, something that was more pressing. Something that, as the prophet Jeremiah described, was like a burning fire in my bones.

As long as I’ve called myself a Christian, I’ve lived in the space between my broken sinfulness and perfect holiness. I know I’m a new creation, changed from the old, wicked heart that I once had when I was apart from Christ. I do not live in abject sin in defiance to the Creator of the cosmos — but I’m not the picture of perfection I aspire to be. The one who looks just like Jesus, so that others can see me and see the goodness and transformation-power of following Jesus. I seem to still struggle with my old self. I heartily identify with Paul when he says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do… I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15,18-19) I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t do it! And what I don’t want to do, what I know is a stark contrast of the hope in me, I do, and do frequently. I struggle with idolatry, lust, pride, envy, greed, and that’s just me being gracious with myself. I want to step off of it, but I keep going around and around in a sick cycle carousel of sin and depravity. I long to be rid of all the elements of my brokenness and live a sin-free, victorious, holy life that pleases and glorifies God. I’m not too patient with this whole sanctification thing.

I know I’m not alone in this. In honest conversations with people, most echo a similar sentiment, of wishing that all sinful desires, thoughts, and actions were eliminated at the moment they believed and trusted in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. And in truth, there is transformation that occurs at our salvation! Most of us just wish that it were…. more complete.

I’ve had the privilege and honor this last year or so to lead worship at a great and Christ-glorifying church, but a couple weeks ago, I was at one of those points where I was just so disappointed with myself. I’m pretty sure I had broken all of the Ten Commandments within the span of a week, and what’s more, I had hardly spent time reading the Bible or praying to God. When it came to Sunday morning, I felt like a bitter hypocrite and as far away from God as I could be. I thought, “God, I don’t want to sing these worship songs! Jesus, I can’t raise my hands or really lead your people into worship! Just look at what I’ve done, I can’t serve you! I’ve disappointed you again and again and I’m not even sure you’re listening to this prayer.” I wasn’t worthy to sing songs that talked about the wondrous grace of God or His beauty when my own life seemed to be unfazed by it.

And as all this guilt and sorrow and shame was roiling in me, it was as if the Holy Spirit cut into my thoughts and spoke: “You’re not loved because of what you’ve done. You’re loved because of what Jesus has done. Don’t sing because you’re worthy to sing the songs, but sing because the Christ you sing of is.”

I vividly remember that moment because of how much it humbled me. In a twisted way, I had somehow believed that God was thrilled to have me on His team when I had my act together, but regretted it whenever I fell. I was trying to make it about me and my worth to God and my ability and how felt, forgetting that Jesus is the center of it all! My sin and shortcomings are not more powerful than the triune God who is the blazing center of all worship and adoration!

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you worry that you’re just not on par with God’s expectations, so you’re just a disappointing “could-have-been”. That because of your sin and brokenness, you’re a huge failure in His eyes. But that’s where the cross comes in, because it accomplishes what we could never do on our own in all our attempts at cleaning ourselves up: it replaces our filthy rags with the righteousness of Christ. Now, when God the Father looks at us, He doesn’t see the habitual idolater, but He sees the sinless, risen Jesus. It’s not an excuse to continue in sin, but it’s an assurance that the power of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit in us is greater than the power of sin or our lack of discipline.

That’s the message of the gospel, that those of us who were far away, despised, destitute, strangers, foreigners, and hopeless have been brought into the Kingdom of God and given unconditional citizenship. We have new identities and are new creations, and we’re given the task to honor and glorify the King because the King is good and gracious and just, saving us when He had no obligation to. And that act of rescue should compel us to thank Him, living to make His Name famous and showing everyone the grace and glory of such a God.

And a funny thing happened: as I was singing those songs, my heart and mind were reminded of the truth I was singing, and joy and peace enveloped me in a way I can’t quite put to words. I realized I wasn’t just instructing people in the glory of God, but I was reminding myself of it. And what’s even better is that a day is coming when we won’t have to be stuck on the sick, cycle carousel of our faults and failures, when we won’t have to live in the space between our depravity and glorification. A day when we’ll be living with our Savior and King.

I am so looking forward to that.

It is Well with Her Soul

Today marks the anniversary of the day my friend Esther Boyalapalli passed away after fighting medulloblastoma for two years. To learn more about Esther’s story, please click here. The following is adapted from something I shared with my InterVarsity fellowship a few years ago.

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Esther BoyalapalliIf you have been around OneWay in the last few years or so, you have inevitably heard about Esther Boyalapalli, accompanied by an assortment of adjectives: loving, caring, strong, unwavering, faith, beautiful, perfect, godly, prayerful, and the list goes on and on. All these can accurately be used to describe Esther, but my goal is not to talk about how amazing she was, but how I saw God work in her, and what I learned from knowing her.
Esther and I both came into UT in the Fall of 2005 and became plugged into OneWay. A couple of my earliest and clearest memories of her are from RISC 2005 and a memorable trip to Kerbey Lane that a couple of us freshmen went to. And when I think about Esther at that time, the first thing that comes to my mind is her smile that stretched from one side of her face to the other, a smile that really was infectious and contagious and hardly left her face. She spoke so demurely and with a grace that I know left an impression on those who came across her. I had the privilege of serving with her on Outreach team my sophomore year and really get to talk to her and see where her heart was.

In the summer of 2007, I received the news that they had found a tumor, and it was definitely a reeling hit. She had mentioned to me about her headaches, but a tumor? My initial response was, seriously, God? Of all people, You had to let Esther go through this?? Couldn’t You find someone else?

And there I revealed a huge misconception that I had, and indeed, I think a lot of people have: that because someone is “good” and does “good things,” they do not deserve to have bad things happen to them. Because Esther was such a “good” and “godly” woman, then it was unfair that she had to go through cancer. It is a sinful idea that one person is inherently above or better than someone else, and pulls us away from what the Gospel teaches us about grace and suffering.

The next year or so, Esther went through chemo and treatment, and it seemed like she was on the right road to recovery. She started driving and was going to start school again. The huge weight behind her eyes began to lift, and you saw the joy and cheer there. Then, in the Spring of last year, the tumor resurfaced.

On July 3, 2009, Esther walked from earth into eternity.

I had the opportunity to talk to her parents, and Esther’s mom told me that Esther had some of the same worries and frustrations that everyone else had, this “why me?” frustration. Just because she was Esther, didn’t mean that she was exempt from doubt and fear. In that fear, she held onto God, and she learned what it meant to truly trust her God. But when the second round came, her mom said that it was as if a transformation happened in Esther. She was no longer scared or bothered by what was going around her, it seemed like a peace just enveloped her. And it was something that God did in her, not a peace she mustered up on her own.

Right there, in Esther, in her story, I saw the transformative power of faith in Jesus! Here was a girl that you thought had it all, down to her walk with Jesus. If I have ever known a Proverbs 31 woman, a woman who’s heart is after God, it seemed Esther was her. But through this ordeal, she learned to really hold onto Christ, and His promise, that He will never leave you nor forsake you. And she clung to it, because that’s all she could cling to. And God took her heart of fear and doubt and misgivings and gave her a heart of trust, of faith in something larger than her and larger than medulloblastoma. You could literally see how God was shaping and changing her.

I believe, and I believe the Bible attests to this everywhere, in the absolute and complete sovereignty of God. The last couple of years, but especially the last few months for me, I see how there is no such thing as “chance” or accidents. Esther’s cancer wasn’t an accident. But it was something that God gave her to shape her into the woman that God wanted her to be. For us, when suffering and trials and hard times come about, and the Bible is clear that they will, we will have fear and doubt and worry and feel pain.

But in those moments, we don’t stay in that fear and doubt and worry and pain, we look at the hope and promise of Jesus, that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, that He had a plan for us that He wrote out before we were even formed in our mother’s bellies. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. We put our faith in that promise and glorify God with our lives. We have a hope and assurance that death is not the end of the story, that death has no victory over us because our victory was won on the cross in the person of Jesus.

Easier said than done, right? As I was writing this, I thought about what this looked like in my own life, and I was convicted in realizing it’s the same thing: clinging to faith, clinging to Jesus. Our strength and hope is not in anything we can find or create in this world, and it is certainly not in ourselves. We run to Jesus.

There was a guy named Horatio Spafford that lived in the 1800s who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago. This guy ran into a sea of bad luck. First, he lost his only son, and then shortly after that, the great Chicago Fire swept through the city in 1871, which ruined him financially. He had invested in a lot of real estate and the fire destroyed pretty much everything. Soon thereafter, he decided his family needed a vacation, and chose England because his friend D. L. Moody would be preaching there. Delayed because of business, Horatio sent his wife and 4 daughters ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic, their ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all 4 of Horatio’s daughters. He received a telegram from his wife when she reached England that had only 2 words on it: “Saved alone.” He then sailed over to England, and the captain of the ship showed Horatio the spot where the previous ship had sunk and his 4 daughters had died. Horatio Spafford then went to his room and penned these lines:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roar, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘it is well, it is well with my soul’

How’s that for suffering well?

We rejoice because death did not win over Esther. Because of Christ’s work, we will see her again, with a renewed body, having fellowship with her and all who have been redeemed by Christ!

Esther’s story is not ultimately about how great of a person she was, but how great our God is. It is about clinging to the the only true solid rock. I don’t know why He chose her of all people to suffer through and die with cancer, but I know that God formed the universe and trees and animals and humans and protons and neutrons, and He’s been doing this a lot longer than I have. He knows what He’s doing, and looking at Esther, I know that He loves us.