God’s Grace & Graciousness

A few weeks ago, I woke up feeling a bit melancholy.  Just before Bruce left for work, he prayed for me, as he often does.    In that prayer, he encouraged me to embrace God’s grace, to reflect God’s graciousness, and to be grateful for all that God has given me. 

I’ve been pondering these qualities – grace, graciousness and gratefulness – in a new way since that morning.  These thoughts are not new or profound, but they serve as reminders of the importance of keeping my mind, my heart, and my attitudes in tune with Jesus. 

Embrace God’s grace
God’s grace is offered to me as His child.  I am a sinner in need of a Lord who will receive me with unmerited favor; a Savior who will pardon my sin.  But sometimes I act as if I’m a sinner who has yet to find a Savior!  I see my sin…and I berate myself.  I groan with disappointment at my imperfections and bad attitudes, and – by doing so – I allow negative thoughts to overshadow God’s gift of grace.  
Psalm 32 reminds me to rejoice in the Lord and be glad.  The psalmist reminds me that I am called “righteous”…not because of what I do or don’t do, but because the very act of my confession draws me into God’s grace. 

How can I be melancholy if I embrace the reality of God’s grace? 

Reflect God’s Graciousness
My mother was one of the most gracious people I ever have met.  She showed a gracious spirit toward other people, often in the face of unkind comments or selfish behaviors.  She extended herself to care for others, even when they were difficult to deal with.  She followed Jesus’ example of love by reflecting God’s graciousness to the people around her. 

I’ve seen God extend His love and graciousness to me…and not just through people like my mom.  God has been merciful, offering me gentle indulgence when I’ve failed or have been stubborn in my response to Him.  Galatians 5:22 reminds me that I am not just a recipient of God’s graciousness…I also have the opportunity to pass His graciousness on to others.  Each day, I can choose to embrace the reality that God’s Spirit lives within me and equips me to radiate godly character and godly virtues toward the people I encounter.

Yet it’s so easy to fall short.  It’s easy to be gracious when people are loving and accepting of me.  Or when I’m in a good mood because things are going well.  But when I’m irritated or frustrated…when people don’t treat me the way I prefer to be treated…then I’m not always so gracious.  And so I recognize that the only way to consistently reflect God’s graciousness is to keep spending time with Him.  I need to dwell in His gracious presence so I can, in turn, reflect His gracious love to others. 

Gratefulness to God
Of these three qualities – grace, graciousness and gratefulness – this last one is the most difficult for me.  I don’t like to admit it, but feelings of entitlement can overshadow my thinking.  Pessimistic attitudes can loom large in my mind and emotions.  And these things then crowd out the awe…the incredible awe…of having a relationship with the God of heaven and earth.  A lack of gratefulness erodes my appreciation for who God is, for His gift of love, and for the rich and abundant life He offers me.

As I ponder this, I realize anew that gratefulness is a choice.  I always can find something to complain about or fret over.  Yet God is willing to walk with me, guide me, and love me in spite of my weaknesses.  And so there always is something for which I can be grateful. 

And above all things, I am grateful for His grace. 

-      Julie

The Joys of the Small(er) Church

A number of years ago I had an experience which made me realize that our evaluation of “big” and “small” truly are shaped by our personal experience.

Julie and I both are natives of a region of California known as the “Greater Los Angeles Area.”  When we moved to the far western suburbs of Chicago in 1980, we relocated from a place of urban sprawl to a place where there actually was empty land between the towns.  We initially settled into a suburb of some 40,000 people…a town surrounded by woods and agricultural land…and it felt very small to us. 

When we found a church, we became friends with another couple who had relocated from rural North Carolina.  The biggest town they ever had seen was about 5000 people.  Needless to say, they thought our town of 40,000 was huge.  And Chicago – some 45 minutes away – was terrifying to them.

We’ve experienced the same sort of thing when it comes to the size of a church.  We spent nearly 25 years in a church of some 3000 people.  The pastors that I networked with all were from other megachurches.  In fact, the church where we served was not even the largest church in town.  There was another church, a few miles away, that had about 6000 people. 

When we came to Oregon so that I could serve as the preaching minister at Garden Way Church (www.gardenway.net), it was a dramatic change, because this is a congregation of about 400 people.  To many people in Oregon, our church is on the larger side.  There are no megachurches in our immediate area, and there are many small, rural churches in the region with congregations of 100 or less.  So Garden Way is not small, but it definitely is smaller than what we have been used to. 

And this is turning out to be a huge joy for us, because our church experience is richer in so many ways. 

One of the assumptions about megachurches is that they have plenty of everything; that resources abound.  It is true that they have larger budgets, and more staff…but all of this is really proportional.  They have many of the same struggles and challenges as smaller churches, just on a different scale.

For example, I know of a megachurch that has 2 full-time staff members who oversee the Early Childhood Ministry.  Imagine: two staff members just for the kids from birth through age 5!  These staff members oversee a team of some 90 people each Sunday morning who staff the nurseries and classrooms for this age group.  But there is a problem:  to properly staff this ministry, they actually need 120+ people each week.  So – just like smaller churches – they face the continual challenge of finding enough volunteers to make the ministry function at the most desirable level. 

I’m reminded of this whenever we have “holes” in the ministry here at our church.  It’s the same kind of thing we used to face, just on a different scale.

But here is what we like most about this wonderful, smaller church where God has led us.  Itis a vibrant community where people truly interact across the generations.   Julie has attended baby showers, and other events, where women of all ages from the church were present.  I’ve attended Men’s Retreats with men of all ages. 

At least in our experience, large churches tend to be much more age segmented.  For example, when there are – literally – hundreds of young couples in your church, then it is easy for the young couples to spend virtually all their time with people like them.  The annual Men’s Retreat at our last church was almost exclusively attended by the young guys. 

I don’t say this critically, because I think it is natural for all of us to behave this way.  But in a church where each age group is much smaller, than it becomes simpler…and easier…and more natural…for people to mingle and interact across the generations. 

And we love this. 

At our last church, I had zero contact with the youth group.  But here, I actually know some of the teens.  Not well, but enough to have a conversation.  We’ve made friends with seniors and young singles and those in-between.  And we see others doing the same.

This strikes me as incredibly healthy and it creates opportunities for natural, relational mentoring.  It creates a greater sense (at least to me) of “the church”.  It solidifies a sense of identity and continuity and legacy that is being passed on from generation to generation.  The rhythm of church life is based more on relationships, and less on programs. 

Yes, there are times when I wish we did have more staff or a bigger budget.  I wish we had a bigger team of volunteers ready, willing, and able to serve.  But – as I said before – these things really are just a matter of scale.  When I think about what really matters…when I think about the importance of living and serving together as a community of faith…I am finding more vitality and meaning in this smaller church. 

I am learning – in a new, different, and exciting way – what it means to “be” the church of Jesus Christ. 

-      Bruce