Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Beautiful Beloved

I just saw a YouTube video produced by the makers of Dove soap. It was an experiment conducted with several women which focused on self-image versus the way others image us. This video was one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in a while.

In case you didn’t watch the video, here’s how it worked… A woman was asked to come into a large, empty studio apartment and sit down. Seated on the other side of a curtain was a forensic artist. Neither the woman or the artist could see each other. The artist asked the woman to describe her facial features in some detail, and based on what she described, the artist drew up a portrait. Once the interview and portrait were completed, the woman was asked to leave, curtained from seeing the artist or the portrait.

Then she met with another person, and they interacted for a while. This person then went to that same studio apartment and described this woman to the forensic artist who was still hidden behind a curtain. A while later, the woman would go back to that apartment to view both portraits.

The results were astounding. For every woman, her self-described portrait was shockingly unattractive, scarred, often older, and disfigured– an utterly unlovely picture of herself. But the portrait described by the stranger was altogether lovely, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. You could see the woman begin to melt with affection, gazing at the second portrait. Meanwhile, when ruefully glancing up at her own self-described portrait, she affirmed her need to work on her own self-image– that she is indeed, beautiful.

The simple message: you are more beautiful than you think.

As a pastor, I am all too familiar with the kind of poor self-esteem and outright self-loathing that plagues most all of us, myself included, to varying degrees. We’re brought up in a hyper-critical world bent on success, strength, and beauty and reminded regularly of the ways we don’t measure up. The harsh judgments and descriptions others make of us unconsciously become the labels with which we image ourselves.

What’s the net result? It’s a severely deflated understanding of ourselves that cannot be strong, courageous, or loving enough to become all that God shaped us to be. Or, we fashion a hyper-inflated persona of ourselves to woo and wow the people around us, craving their approval and whatever else we can get from them. In either case, we mask the wounds and painful scars we so desperately try to hide.

It’s no wonder then that we cannot see and love ourselves for who we are. And, even more egregious, we cannot understand, fathom, or receive the ways that our God sees and holds us. We think we are ugly, small (or too big!), hopelessly flawed, unlovable (if they really knew me!), and hopelessly limited. What would God want with this mess of a human being?

So we go through life hyper-critical of ourselves, naturally assuming that others around us and God are just as critical and judgmental. We find subtle, yet harrowing ways of forging others and God into ugly, critical versions of ourselves. This reality alone may very well be the primary source of all the depression, anxiety, boredom, addiction, violent and stupid acts of desperation, and relational brokenness and infidelities we see all around us.
My BelovedSo what if we began a journey of self-definition beginning with how God, our Creator sees us? I looked at the biblical word “beloved” and was surprised to see how often this word was used to describe us. We are indeed God’s beloved (1 Thess. 1:4), uniquely created in God’s uniquely divine image (Gen. 1:26, 27). When we’re lost, God desperately, relentlessly pursues as that one lost sheep, then tenderly, joyfully carries us home on his shoulders (Luke 15:4-6). Even when we purposefully reject God, he patiently, longingly stands there as our Father who cannot wait until we come home, runs to embrace us, and brings us in to a warm, grand feast waiting for us in our honor (Luke 15:20-24).

This is just a snapshot of the biblical images that describe God’s tender love for us. I believe that not even all the words of Scripture can fathom the way God cherishes, adores, and longs for us. God knows our beauty and worth, no matter the ways in which we and world attempt to trash what God has made. God rejects the hyper-critical ways we see ourselves and others.

In short: we need to see the portrait God has made of us. It is strikingly more beautiful, handsome, and captivating than the ugly, scarred self-portrait of ourselves. Seeing God’s portrait indeed melts us and keeps us forever within the passionate embrace of our God and Father.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Spiritual Growth and Practice

Squinty-Eyed Grace

It seems like we human beings have an ingrained  “too-good-too-be-true” barometer in our systems.

Let’s say I walk into my favorite restaurant, sit down and pick up the menu. Then moments later, my server walks up and says, “Ah, Mr. Owens. You are most welcome! Order anything you like. Today’s meal is on the house.” Most of you, like me, would immediately snap back, “What??” Our hackles would go up. We’d demand to know the catch. The deal must rigged. It’s too good to be true.

After all, nothing is ever free. Everything has a cost. There are limits to all things. The piper always comes piping. And on and on our “too-good-to-be-true” barometers expand, squeezing our spirits us into a squinty-eyed, furrowed brow scrutiny of anything that glows too brightly or tastes too sweet.

It’s no wonder then that we have a hard time accepting something like grace. Grace stands in sharp contrast to the eye-for-an-eye, fair-is-fair, you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of world we live in. That’s because grace says, “No, you don’t deserve this good thing, but you’re getting it anyway, and even more than you would have dreamed to ask.”
GraceFor us Christians, grace is at the very center of our faith. We dare to hold this truth that God has reconciled us and the whole world to himself, forgiven us and gives us all an abundant, eternal life through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is a freely given gift from God with no strings attached. We can’t earn it, work for it, or otherwise show ourselves worthy to receive it. God has already given us this gift. It’s gratis.

It’s grace.

I did a concordance search on the word grace in the Bible, and I was astounded at what I saw. Over and over again, the grace of God was presented as this wildly extravagant thing, uncontainable, unlimited, shockingly expansive, exhaustive and inclusive. Here are a few samples (with a few words I have bolded and italicized):

From [Christ’s] abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. (John 1:16, NLT)

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man,how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15)

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Cor. 15:10)

…in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:7-9)

I just got that “wow” factor again, typing in these verses. This grace of God is huge, uncontainable, almost inexpressively good. Dare I say, it even seems scandalous.

And speaking of scandal, one of the most scandalous stories of the New Testament is the story of the near stoning of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus came to her rescue, ruled out her condemnation on the grounds that no one has a right to condemn her, and forgave her. There was no punishment. She didn’t even ask for forgiveness! God’s grace incarnate forgave the woman, turned away the wall of ungraciousness that demanded her death, and invited this daughter of God into a new life free from sin. (John 8:2-11) By religious rule, she should have died. Grace– grace she did not ask for!– intervened to set her free.

Now here’s what always happens. The moment we see or speak of grace, immediately our “too-good-too-be-true” barometers go off and we race to to put limits and rules to grace. “Well, there may be grace for us, but not for those people.” “Grace is only applicable in these circumstances, but not those.” “There may be grace, but you’ve got to believe in this doctrine, subscribe to this practice, and believe and do x, y, and z to get it.”

Preachers and teachers have been branded heretics for daring to suggest that grace expands beyond our prescribed doctrines, practices, rules and beliefs. Jesus, Paul, and a whole other legion of proclaimers of the good news of God’s grace were vilified for “making it too easy”, “dumbing down the rules” and opening the grace of God’s coming kingdom to too many “undeserving” people.

In other words, too many of us have found self-assured comfort with a squinty-eyed version of grace. And I would say that this squinty-eyed version of grace is no grace at all. True grace evokes a child-like, wide-eyed wonder and even wide-eyed shock at the loving enormity of the grace of our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is grace!


Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

Thank You and Goodbye, Brennan Manning

Brennan ManningI just learned that yesterday, April 12, 2013, Christian author, speaker and evangelist Brennan Manning died. He was 78-years-old. He had been in severely declining health these past few years, so in one sense, his death isn’t a shock. But on the other hand, I’ve been in state of saddened joy today, pained at his parting but so thankful for Brennan’s life, his witness, and the huge impact he has had on me.

I first encountered Brennan Manning’s writing when a dear, sweet lady from the church I was serving gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. She enthusiastically told me that this book had changed her life, and as a part of her ministry, she gave away copies to people she knew would appreciate it. Well, when someone gives a book with the preface this changed my life, I’m going to read it. And read it I did. I consumed it. It was a tremendously healing, landscape-opening book for me that invited me into the depth and power of God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way I had never seen before. It was rugged and gentle, uplifting and earthy, orthodox and un-orthodox all at the same time. The essential message is simple: Jesus came for ragamuffins, and we are all ragamuffins, tenderly and furiously loved by God, no matter the degree of our fallenness, self-loathing, doubt, or the damage done to us by the Pharisees from without and within.

But the most compelling aspect of Brennan Manning’s message was the reality that he, himself was the poster boy par excellence for the gospel of grace he preached. Of all the authors I have read and respected, Brennan’s life is one of the most enigmatic and scandalous. As a young man, he became a Franciscan priest and scholar. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. After entering into treatment, he left his ordination and got married. 25 years later he divorced, his life riddled before, during, and after by alcohol, depression, and deception. He was always a Roman Catholic, and yet preached an evangelical gospel of grace by faith. He was a priest with and without the cloth, a vagabond preacher, saintly, a desperate sinner, an outcast, yet loved and admired, a failure, and still an astounding picture of a life saved and kept by grace. That’s why I will always love and admire Brennan Manning.

Through all of this, Brennan struggled to affirm and preach that yes, God loves and embraces us ragamuffins just as we are, not as we should be. If anyone’s life was a testimony of radically clinging to this grace of God in the midst of pain, shame, victory and defeat it was Brennan Manning.
Brennan and meWell, the story continues for me. In March of 2004, just a few months after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel, I had the chance to hear and meet Brennan Manning. I took a group of youth from my church to a youth conference in Ocean City, MD. Brennan just happened to be the keynote speaker for the adult leaders. I soaked in every word he spoke, surprised at the sheer intensity of his demeanor. He spoke of God’s tenderness with such forceful resolve, hoping to crack through our calloused fortresses of an intellectualized version God’s love to the near total exclusion of truly knowing this awesome love for ourselves. He spoke of the tender, furious love of God. As he spoke, his voice captured the very essence of it, too.

Still, Brennan was a quiet, shy, yet open man. He took time to talk to me, sign my books, and even posed for a picture with me. I was so very grateful that God had led our paths together at that time, little knowing what was to come just days later.

Three days after getting home from that retreat, my wife Rebekah left me, taking our daughter Grace with her. That precipitated two of the darkest, most uncertain years of my life. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know the personal damage: a shattered self-esteem, self-loathing, guilt, anger, loneliness, regret, fear, and for me, depression. Through that hellish ordeal, I learned in the barest of terms that indeed I am also a ragamuffin loved and embraced by my Father God, whom I learned to trust as Abba.

Years later, I still turn to Brennan’s words. It’s funny. All of his books preach the same basic message, and yet he fills page after page trying to express it. If you’ve read one Brennan Manning book, you’ve read them all. Still, my bookshelf holds almost all of them.

In closing, I’d like to share some words found near the end of Brennan Manning’s last book All Is Grace: a Ragamuffin Memoir. These are some of the last words he penned:

     My life is a witness to vulgar grace– a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifsands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request– “Please, remember me”– and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Amen, Brennan. May you rest in the arms of our Abba, enjoying for all times the embrace you shared with the world and with me, a fellow ragamuffin.


Filed under Grief and Healing, Spiritual Growth and Practice