We all know bad relationships. We may not all realize it, but at one time or another we have held up the hope of pleasing someone just to be left with broken pieces on the floor. We know the feeling that often comes along with it. The one that creeps up in frustration, despair, and exhaustion and finds us just wanting to know what it will take to make this person care, forgive, love or even just notice us. For many in sixteenth century Europe this was the normal Christian view of God.
The world was different at this time. The Church was more government than ministry and to step out of line promised eternal consequences. Many scrambled to do whatever they could do to please church leaders. Villages would become recognized for their church buildings and the relics they housed. Doing their best to attract patrons, churches would house so-called relics that were often nothing more than a broken piece of wood or bone. No matter if you thought it was a fake or not, many would come and pay to see them with the hope that it might improve their relationship with God. Many would commit much of their life traveling to see and touch these holy items. This and so many more things left people with either a false sense of security, or a reinforced sense of despair. Church building projects would leverage this sense of burden to raise funds. Indulgences were established by the church under the idea that people could pay money and have credit added to themselves or a loved one’s spiritual account. People bought it too. Lots of them. This was how life would go. Pray, follow the rules, pay your tithe, attend mass daily and hope you are one of the lucky ones God likes. If you had any doubt that something was missing just do more.
This left many with the same reality staring them in the face – it was never enough and you never really knew where you stood with God. This was the burden that filled the air of Reformation Europe. In 1500, the Church did not exist as we understand it today. In Western Europe you were part of the Roman Catholic Church or you were "anathema" - that is, damned to hell. This is the kind of power that many assumed the Pope and Catholic church had. So to resist any of the teachings of the church was to disagree with God himself. As you can imagine, this was not a very popular option. Over the years, and throughout Europe, different men began to have serious issues with many of the teachings that would be promoted by the church. Unlike the common-folk, these men were well trained and could read and understand their Bibles apart from what the Church told them. But no matter their resistance to the Church teachings, they would not successfully bring change because no one was really willing or able to adequately challenge the Catholic church. That is until the disruptive noise of Martin Luther’s hammer rang throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.
A monk who had devoted his life to reading and studying the Bible, Luther was known by his peers and priest for his great sense of guilt. Luther was said to have burdened his priest for hours with his confessions and sense of constant grief before God. Like many in Europe this struggle marked much of Luther’s adult life. That is until Luther’s eyes were opened to see the Gospel in his Bible.
"There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."1
The Gospel of grace transformed how Luther understood everything. And on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door for the community and world to see. Propelled by the Gospel of scripture, Luther was publicly challenging the Pope and the Catholic church. This was the beginning of what would become known as The Protestant Reformation. What followed was a series of events that changed the world. Men and women all over the Western world were rejecting the false notion that they could appease God with their actions and like Luther they became transformed by the truth that Jesus alone would restore their relationship with God. No longer was the burden present. No more would they be haunted with the fear of a missed step, or slurred prayer. Jesus had done all the work for them. It was as if a light had finally been turned on and now the world could see that the big angry God that they had imagined, was actually full of grace and calling people to himself. It changed everything.
We can all be tempted to live a life like those 500 years ago. We can go throughout our day fully aware of all the ways we fail to measure up. It is far too easy to suppose that our experience with bad relationships is somehow replicated in God. But that is simply not true. One of the most profound truths we must settle in our hearts and minds is that Jesus has really paid it all. There is nothing left for you to do to be right with God. Your sin is not special. It is not too great. You do not have to wait until you are ready. He has paid it all. This Reformation Day (tomorrow, October 31st), let us take time to reflect on the effective work that Jesus has done that restores our relationship with God. Let us consider how there is no work for us to do. Let us consider how we can turn to God in confidence and know he is not tapping his foot with arms crossed. Instead look with Luther and see your God with arms extended, full of grace and love for you.
Jeff Palen is a member and Small Group leader at Center Church who is also on staff doing an internship with the Youth Ministry. He is married to Barb and together they have 4 wonderful children and live in Queen Creek.
In the south central Chinese province of Hunan, there is a unique bridge over the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon. It’s not the height or length of the bridge that makes it unique, it’s the material that you walk on while almost a thousand feet above the canyon that takes your breath away. All 430 meters of the walkway (that’s 4 football fields long for us Americans) is made of panels of glass.
Now, the engineers who built this bridge were very aware that not many people would line up to walk across a glass bridge, so they arranged a demonstration to build the public’s trust in that glass. 20 brave (or foolish?) volunteers with sledgehammers began to smash the panels of glass with everything they had.
Then another 11 (again, brave or foolish?) volunteers piled into an SUV and they drove across the damaged panels... and it held.
Everyone who saw this had a new awareness and trust in this special glass. If it could hold a car after being smashed, it could handle the weight of a person walking on it, no problem.
I want to bring our attention to the Grand Canyon between sinners and a holy God. And the bridge of Jesus Christ that is the only way to get across. Like the demonstration on the glass bridge, we see something similar in Romans 5:8:
"...but God shows (or demonstrates) his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Just like the wary tourist who questions the strength of the glass bridge, we as believers can become paralyzed with fear in life’s circumstances, uncertainty and trials. Will God really sustain me and hold me up? It’s not a dumb question. There are plenty of videos of people so utterly terrified of crossing the Chinese glass bridge, they had to be dragged to the other side. In a moment of terror, they lost their trust in the strength of the glass.
Church, Jesus has paved the bridge between our hopeless state and Holy God with his own body. And not even the sledgehammer of the crucifixion or the impossible weight of all the sin and shame that rolled over him, not even death itself, was able to stop Him!
So don’t lose your trust in the strength and power of Jesus. It’s been tested and proved trustworthy. Even when it feels like you’re walking on transparent glass, able to see the canyon far below, for the one who puts their trust in Christ it’s no different than walking on solid ground. You can trust him.
It is good to rehearse the evidence we have for trusting the Lord. Begin by reminding yourself that our God is Holy, set apart from everything and everyone. That you were dead in your sins and that kept you from being with Him, but your hope is that your sins were nailed onto Jesus on the cross. He proved himself trustworthy, and that he will hold you fast. And He will be with you until the end of the age. Amen!
Zach Boomsma serves as the Worship Director and a Small Group leader at Center Church. He is married to Andrea and they have 4 delightful children. He is an Air Traffic Controller at PHX airport but is somehow still terrible with directions while driving.
This post was originally written for a Call to Worship on a previous Sunday this year.
Photos are from Google.
A thick fog of rancor and contention has settled over our days. Whenever dissension settles in, hope is blotted out. How can Christians retain hope in this dispiriting age?
We must not choose our own hopes. We invariably pin our hopes on good but transient things like decent health, increasing savings, tranquil family, or career advancement. We may even be building our hopes on a political party, societal change, or social justice. These are admirable things but unfit to be our primary hope. We Christians are eternal beings, so nothing less than eternal hope will work.
Where do we get our hope?
Only the promises of the Bible are sturdy enough to hold your hope. All these promises lead to Jesus. Look to what Jesus has done. He promises that you will not pay with your life for your treason against God. He already has. Look to what Jesus is doing. He promises to use his cosmic authority to send comfort and aid to you by praying for you. He promises to work all things in your life, even the wretched things, for your good.
That is hope to build your life upon.
Edward Mote counseled in verse so long ago,
On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
Your life is too important to choose your own hope. Let Jesus.
Rich Richardson is a Lead Elder and oversees the preaching and vision here at Center Church. He is married to Tiffany and they have 4 great kids. Once full of athletic promise, he has accepted the physical limitations that come with injury + being in your 40s and now makes reading his primary hobby.
I discovered “The Runner Nod” on a running path near my house that I use several times a week. I’ve never been a big runner so it was something of a surprising discovery. Here it is:
When two walkers or joggers or cyclists will pass each other there is a friendly and determined nod exchanged. Some people say good morning. Other people give a thumbs up. Others flash a peace sign. But almost everybody signals to the runner they are passing that they see them, greet them, and encourage them to press on. Some people are smiling, others are wincing with effort, others look angry and determined. But almost all of them nod.
During the hottest parts of the summer here that runner nod was sometimes all that kept me going. When I saw another runner absolutely covered in sweat and working on a good sunburn, it helped. It didn’t make the weather any less hot or make me any less thirsty. It didn’t change anything about my external environment. But it did something inside me. It took away the feeling that I was alone. It gave me the encouragement of seeing someone else on the trail too.
One hot run in particular I came across an old man who must’ve been in his late 70s shuffling in a jog along the path. You could just tell he had been doing this for years. He no longer cared about cool running gear or a fast pace. He had tube socks that came up to mid-calf and an ancient looking baseball cap. But just seeing him put energy back into my steps. If he could do it I could do it. So I pressed on.
Church meetings and interactions during the season are largely unsatisfying. Don’t get me wrong—they’re a blessing. But they’re not the same as the glory days of donuts handed out freely with coffee in the auditorium and seeing old and young members embracing in hugs.
Here’s what it looks like: At our church gatherings we are encouraging people to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. And it’s really hard to have an encouraging faith-building conversation yelling through masks 6 feet away from each other. In our community group the guys in my group get together and sit 6 feet apart from each other outside in my backyard. It’s better and we can certainly connect and share more there but there are constant reminders of the distance. And once a month our community group jumps onto laptops and phones for an online meeting. It’s always awkward. There are weird noise is coming through from somewhere. There are weird delays. It’s hard to share something deep on your heart through a computer screen while someone is trying to figure out how to adjust their mic volume.
In Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Many times gathering with church people in this season is hard and unsatisfying. Is it really worth it to get to church, remember the restrictions, and worship through the awkwardness? Is it really worth it for my wife Jenn to fight to engage on the livestream while a one year old yells in her ear? Is it even making any difference?
If our church gatherings are just productions, then no. The environment is not ideal. It’s not relaxing and comfortable. But if the point is that we stir one another up to love and good works, then this absolutely makes a difference.
Many times in these church interactions all you get is a runners nod. You hear briefly from the other person and see them running on the path of faith. You see them sweating and straining in their individual race of faith. And you wish you could put an arm around them or carry them for a while but sometimes all you can do is give a thumbs up and a nod.
But God has used these brief interactions to keep me running.
In passing this is what I know: My elderly but young-at-heart friend Mrs. Wheeler is still full of joy despite being much more isolated and at great risk of her health because of her age. My friend Neil is trying to help a local school district figure out how to even do fine arts in this age of pandemic and dealing with major stress. My friend Anna is battling through long-term coronavirus symptoms and effects. My friends Lenny and Amy are trying to manage teaching from home while all of their kids attend class from home as well. My friend Jon is leading worship on Sundays after an unsatisfying week of trying to teach people to learn music through a computer screen. They’re running at different paces. They’re running their own races. But they’re running.
So on Sundays we run together. The wind is against us. The weather is terrible. But we’re not giving up. We see each other and nod. We raise our hands in worship. We lean forward and hear the word. We catch brief life updates. Then too quickly, we’re back in our cars driving away.
The external world hasn’t changed, but we have. There’s a little more energy in our steps. So we press on.
Hebrews 12:1 "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,"
Ricky Alcantar is husband to Jenn, dad to three boys, and serves as Lead Pastor of our "sister church" Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX where he oversees preaching and vision for the church. He loves thinking about writing but then listening to podcasts instead. This post originally appeared on his personal blog and has been reposted here with permission.
Photo by via Unsplash
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Whichever day this past week was the hottest, I had the brilliant idea to try and fix my RV gate. I had two major issues to address: first, my concrete anchors were in the wrong place, and second, the metal support beam was bent. To fix this the right way, I simply needed the right concrete anchors in the correct spot and needed to straighten the metal support beam. The anchors were easy, they had to be the right size and driven into something solid and strong, but bending the metal back requires intense heat.
In some ways our hearts are like RV Gates, and Jesus is our concrete anchor. Sometimes, our hearts are anchored to the wrong thing and we need to adjust what our lives are centered around. Other times we have areas in our lives that are bent out of alignment and we need them to be bent back into place. And one of the ways God bends the crooked “metal” of our misaligned hearts is through the intense heat of trials.
It would be counterproductive to heat up bent metal and then walk away. It is precisely when the metal is red hot that you should bend it to its proper place. Just so, it would be counterproductive to live through the heat of a pandemic, civil unrest, and political uncertainty to only miss the opportunity to embrace these moments that God uses to bend our hearts to be in proper alignment with our anchor, Christ. We can experience joy in the face of trials because we are assured of the outcome: being shaped more into the likeness of Jesus. Don’t waste these moments! The heat is on. This is go-time. Set your anchors on Jesus when the fire of trials seems to be all around you. To be steadfastly aligned with and anchored to Christ is the most secure place to be.
(A version of this post was originally given as a Call to Worship for a recent Sunday Service. It was rewritten for publication on the blog. To watch, listen to or read sermon transcripts from our Sunday services, check out the Sermons page!)
Zach Boomsma serves as the Worship Director and a Small Group leader here at Center Church. He is married to Andrea and they have 4 delightful children. He is an Air Traffic Controller at PHX airport but is somehow still terrible with directions while driving.