When I eventually left the Hermitage Church of Christ to move to Texas to go to preaching school, the congregation threw me a party. Along with his family, Sperry Hogue, the minister at the church, put together a video in which they went around and talked to almost everyone at the church and gave them the opportunity to say nice things about me. Some of the comments were hilariously funny, many were deeply touching. A lady name Dori, who I’d come to love, actually wrote a song about me, and played the guitar while she and a few others sang the song on video.
I’d spent A LOT of time at Sperry’s house over the three years I was there. Being in their peaceful, loving home was like a taste of heaven to me. Many of those evenings I stayed far later than I should have, and only later did I realize how intrusive I probably was. But they were so gracious and never asked me to leave. So in the video they made, interspersed throughout the interviews with others in the congregation, were clips of Sperry and his family standing inside the front door of their house saying goodbye to me. They’d be saying things like, “Well Ron, thanks for stopping by. Always glad to see you.” As the clips progressed throughout the video, one person after another would appear in pajamas and they’d all act more and more tired. By the last clip, they were all slumped down on the floor, barely awake as they were saying, “Thanks for stopping by, Ron.” The whole thing was hilarious, and I’ve rarely felt as loved and appreciated.
That video is still one of my most treasured possessions, and still watch it every few years. In fact, I’m tearing up even now as I think about it.
The church in Hermitage wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but it was an almost perfect incubator for my fledgling faith. And as I’ve reflected on my time as a part of that church, as a brand new, dripping wet, baby Christian, I’ve come to realize how many of my values about what church and the Christian life should be were formed there. I want to share a few of those values here in the next few posts, and the stories that cemented those values into my soul.
Shortly after my baptism, I began to struggle. You see, when I gave my life to Jesus, I gave my LIFE to Jesus. I trusted him to save me from my past sins, and as a consummate sinner, I knew what that meant. So when I gave my life to Jesus, I also made him a vow that I would sin no more. And I worked HARD at keeping that vow.
And oh how I beat myself up for each sin. Keenly aware of all that Jesus had done for me, and genuinely believing that he had made me pure, I was ashamed that I could not do more to remain pure. After a couple of months of trying, and failing, and trying harder, and failing yet again, I was dispirited. I became convinced that God had turned his back on me. And why wouldn’t he? After doing so much for me only to watch me, unable to remain pure for even a week.
So I talked to Sperry about it. And then Sperry talked to me about grace.
That evening, we drank deeply from 1 John 1:5-2:2. Those verses saved my fragile faith.
Grace is pretty good stuff, as it turns out. Here’s the gist of those verses:
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. We’re often more darkness than light, so we walk in his light, which cascades down on us and wraps in a warm embrace. And as we walk in his light, where he is, we can enjoy an actual relationship with him. And as we live in the warmth of the Father’s affection, the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
The key concept there is this idea of walking in the light. And that phrase trips people up, because at first glance it sounds like it must be talking about the quality of one’s walk. But the passage is not really about the verb “walk,” as if this was about our own efforts at walking well. No, walking in the light is not about how we walk, but about where we walk. And in the warm glow of the Father’s light and love, no matter how imperfectly we walk, we have fellowship with him. And in his light, the blood of Jesus, in an ongoing, continual way, cleanses us of whatever we need cleansed of. As . . . it . . . happens.
A fresh well-spring of grace for each eruption of sin.
Cool water. Parched earth.
I’ve never been shown anything that impacted me more, and in all my years of ministry, I’ve never shared anything — publicly or privately — that has had more impact on hurting, struggling, broken people.
God is desperately, hopelessly in love with you, and has done literally everything to make it possible for you to live in peace with him, with yourself, and with others. It is such a liberating revelation that I’m surprised we don’t talk about it more. But I seem to regularly find Christians who haven’t learned to live in that place.
How might your life be different if you knew when you woke up each morning that nothing you screwed up that day was going to have any effect at all on your Father’s love for you or on your standing with him? If you knew, really knew — because he’s won you to that place — that he . . . is . . . for . . . you? How would it change your life if you could really learn to live loved? To quit wrestling and striving and manipulating the world around you to try to get for yourself some peace, some security, something that would make you feel better about yourself? To simply relax and learn to rest in the Father’s affection for you?
Grace. It’s that good. It changes the way you think of God. It changes the way you think of yourself. And it’ll change the way you interact with everyone else in your life.
Grace is not just an idea, a mere theological concept. No, it’s much more than that. It’s in the genetic sequence of God himself. And as Christians, he’s put that in us too. So grace is not optional for us. For the Christian, because we have experienced the abundance of God’s grace, we simply must extend that grace – in all its warmth and power – to others. Grace should not be something we come to after much thought and deliberation, something we put to a vote and act on (or not) only after achieving consensus. No, grace is to be a knee-jerk reaction for the Christian, because it was a knee-jerk reaction for God.
That was given to me early on in that little church in western Pennsylvania. I saw it in Scripture, as a gentle breath of God toward man. But I saw it in that church too, lived out by many and given as freely as it was received.
And it became forever part of me. A heavenly treasure in a fragile clay pot.
Next: Church as an Incubator of Faith