Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blood & Mud: Learning grace the hard way

(The following is a "testimony" given on Sunday,
February 14, 2010 at MetroAlliance Church.
It feels a little risky sharing it here;
but the Holy Spirit has been nagging me,
so here goes...)


Hello, my name is Stephen. I’m a sin-aholic and it’s been….not all that long since I’ve last sinned.

Sigh.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting if church were a little more like Alcoholics Anonymous. But, that’s not why I’m up here today, so I’ll move along.

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My name is Stephen Clark, and I moved to Cleveland in the fall of 2008 from Fishers, Indiana, which is near Indianapolis, to work at a small local University that was undergoing a change of ownership. MetroAlliance Church is the first church I tried here.

After recovering from the initial shock of my first visit to MetroAlliance, the Lord drew me back, somewhat against my will, and made it clear to me that this was my new church home, for better or for worse, at least for the time being.

This experience has further confirmed what I already knew to be true about God; He’s smarter than I am and always knows best. I don’t always acknowledge that, but I do know it’s true.

So, the pastor asked if I would share a bit about my testimony. I’ll do my best to stick to my script, keep it short, and zero in on just a few highlights.

===

My hometown is New Castle, Indiana. I grew up in a small Assemblies of God church that was founded by my maternal grandfather. This doesn’t make me more spiritual or holy; it’s just an interesting fact.

Another interesting tidbit – at least interesting to me – is that God chose to have me, an introvert, who was also terribly shy as a kid – grow up in a Pentecostal church.

Pentecostals are generally noisy and kind of in your face. I wasn’t. From this I’ve decided God has a slightly twisted sense of humor. I’m still a Pentecostal, more or less; just really toned down.

I accepted Christ into my heart early and often. By that I mean that every Sunday in children’s church they always gave “the call,” and every Sunday, pretty much all of us raised our hands. Man, what tiny incorrigible heathens me and my cousins and friends at 5, 6, 7 years old must have been!

Actually, I think our response was largely due to the fact that many of the Sunday school and other lessons and sermons we were bombarded with always seemed to have an element of that, you-may-have-sinned-this-week-and-lost-your-salvation-without-knowing-it-and-hell-is-a-really-awful-place-and-Jesus-could-come-back-right-now-and-you-WILL-be-left-behind-if-there-is-even-a-smidge-of-sin-in-your-little-heart!

I mean, come on! The situation was stacked against us. We were kids! Of course we had done something wrong during the week! That’s what we did. And hell was not where we wanted to end up. So, it was pretty simple to figure out that it was better to be safe than sorry, raise our hands every week, and “return to the fold” over and over and over.

But, over time, this perpetual backslider mentality didn’t do much for our spiritual maturity. The formal label for it is “legalism;” a way of life that I do not recommend.

===

Okay, that’s a little context around my early years. Obviously I grew up, left home, and proceeded to go out into the world and screw up many, many, many times.

There’s a metaphor that crops up in the Bible a few times, like in Jeremiah 18 which you can look at later, that images us as clay and God as the potter. You know, we’re on this cute little wheel-thing gently being formed into the vessel that He wants us to be, under the Master’s hands, etc., etc.; a very lovely image. Right?

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty messy one. Clay is mud; wet and slick and staining everything. The potter grabs a handful of us, smacks us around, and then slaps us down on this spinning wheel. It’s no wonder that spiritual growth can make us feel dizzy from time to time!

Isaiah 29:16, using this potter metaphor, states, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘You did not make me?’ Can the pot say of the potter, ‘You know nothing?’”

Okay, I know this is the wrong answer, but, well, sure! Of course we “clay people” can talk back to God, and I know I’ve done it a few – maybe many – times; both in things I’ve said and done. Just as with legalism, I don’t recommend this way of life, either.

You could say that I’ve been stubborn clay.

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Part of my screwing up has involved a long struggle with pornography, something I still have to be on guard against; being divorced – more than once; committing adultery and fornication; lying, a lot, usually to cover up the things I’ve just mentioned; and I could go on. But I think you get the idea.

What this has required has been large doses of God’s grace applied to my life, over and over and over again.

Basically, it meant that the potter grabbed my muddy life, applied the blood of Jesus, smacked me around some more, and then slapped me back onto His wheel to prod, bend, squeeze, and work my life toward the SHAPE He always had in mind.

I grew up thinking that salvation, redemption, sanctification, and all these elements of spiritual growth, were like events. Once and done! You confess and voila, you’re a Christian, and that’s that. Everything is supposed to be hunky dory from then on.

This way of thinking basically turns you into a spiritual crash test dummy that keeps smacking into this thing called reality. Really, really hard.

Again, speaking from experience, not a way of life I recommend.

What has taken me most of my almost 58 years to finally figure out is that it is all a process. It’s a process of mud and blood; the blood being applied to the mud being shaped, lovingly, but with some pain, by an incredibly merciful, relentless, and patient God.

I cannot begin to express how both grateful and amazed I am that He has never given up on me. It’s overwhelmingly humbling.

===

Another very important truth I’ve learned is how desperately I need to be in fellowship with and loved by godly men. Guys, listen to me; we cannot walk out our faith alone – we deeply need each other.

Those times in my life where I’ve made my most painful and most stupid mistakes were at times when I was not connected to godly guys. I was trying to do it my way, on my own, and that left me exposed and helpless on the battlefield.

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So, to bring this home and begin to wrap it up; God knew MetroAlliance was the place for me at this time, because here I have found a great bunch of godly men. While I’m still getting to know you and you’re still getting to know me, the love, encouragement, and acceptance I have already experienced is just what I need.

On this Valentine’s Day Sunday, I unashamedly declare to all the men here, I am falling in love with you the more I get to know you.

The godly love that we are called to as Christian men is a gritty, no-nonsense (well, maybe some nonsense), teeth-bared, all out, I’ve-got-your-back-on-the-battlefield, mud and blood love.

It’s hard for us as guys to ask for what we need, or to even say what we need. But we need God and we need each other.

I need you guys, in my life, for accountability, for your wisdom, for your strength when I’m weak, and more.

And I need all of you because you are my family here in Cleveland. I’m truly glad that God knows better than me, and that He brought me to MetroAlliance at such a time as this. I look forward to getting to know all of you better, and to serving as best I can as He has gifted me.


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How about you? Has your faith walk been easy? Can you relate to my struggles? Or are you shaking your head, wondering how this guy can claim to be a Christian and still mess up so bad? Share your honest thoughts and opinions in the comments!

FYI: I no longer attend MetroAlliance Church.

2 comments:

  1. God's sovereignty and patience with us is a humbling and gut-checking thing. For all of us who have ever been to the bottom of the well and felt God's hand hold us up, for all who have felt deformed only to find God's hand chiseling away,: Thanks for sharing!

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  2. This post was a good reminder of how God finishes what he starts. Thank you for sharing (I would think it would be much scarier sharing this testimony at your church, than online.)It is a wonderful thing that you have a group of men with whom you can share and grow. It is definitely lacking in many places.

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