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About a week ago, I attended a small gathering of men at my church, the beginning (reinvention, reintstatement) of a men’s ministry. In advance of the meeting, the leader of the event asked if I would share a short story about someone who had influenced my spiritual life. Here is the story that I told:

* * * * *

In February of 1972, as a first year undergrad, I began to pursue God in earnest through the Navigator campus ministry, becoming involved in Bible studies, Scripture memorization, and evangelism. At the end of the semester, I went home for the summer. A few weeks later, my older brother was killed and my interest in spiritual things tanked. When I returned to college, I had no interest in continuing my association with the Navigators. A senior student, whom I knew but only cursorily, had heard that I was having a hard time and dropped by my dorm room. (Since this is a public blog, I won’t use his real name.) I had seen Dave at some Navigator events, but he was not really tied into the organization in any formal way. He wasn’t part of the leadership team and did not participate in many of the ministry’s activities. He flew under the radar, as they say. When Dave showed up at my door, I had no concern that he was there to recruit me back into the ministry.

Dave and I sat down on the edge of my bed. He put his arm around me, and spoke some words which I do not recall. He communicated, not so much love, as acceptance, in a way that I have rarely experienced from anyone else. Dave paid me several more visits over the next few weeks, nurturing me back to spiritual health with hardly anything more than hugs and kind words. There was no theology, no scolding, no “you need to…”, no urging, no planning, no strategizing for how I would get myself out of the slough of despondency.

I eventually rejoined the Navigator ministry and rarely ran into Dave. It was only later that I learned that what Dave had done for me, he had done for at least a score of other men. Shepherding people was his gift and he was really good at it.

* * * * *

Feeling accepted is a really big deal for many people, including myself. Sure, some people could care less. These are the ones who say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m going to do it anyway.” The rest of us care, where the degree of concern ranges from wondering what other people are thinking to being paralyzed into inaction. On my part, I have a moderately thick skin. What other people think of me has an affect, but I don’t fixate on it. What God thinks of me is an entirely different matter, probably because there is so much more at stake. If another person does not like me, well, that’s their problem. If God does not like me and accept me, then that’s my problem.

As part of the Spiritual Exercises, I spent several days reflecting on the path that God has had me walk from the time I was very young. Tracing that path one night, I came to Dave and I stopped to spend some time thinking about what happened that fall semester of my second year in college. What had Dave done, that no one else had even come close to doing? Even after 40 years have passed, why do I remember that first rather unassuming, uneventful visit, a visit that did not last more than 10 minutes? Dave’s role in my life was huge, but why?

Most Christians I know are legalists. They would deny this, but that does not negate the truth. I understand. I have spent most of my life following, not the Old Testament Jewish Law, but a more “modern” New Testament law. The New Testament is jam-packed with all sorts of injunctions against bad behavior and commands regarding the observance of good behavior. The New Testament also includes something “New”: commands related not so much to outward behavior but to inward attitudes and habits of thought.

Reading the apostle Paul’s epistles, one might conclude that paying close attention to the New Testament law is really important. Despite the fact that Paul’s epistles to the churches contain a lot of “thou shalts,” Paul was not a legalist, and he made that perfectly clear to the Galatians:

If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan. What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily. (The Message)

Despite this straightforward and strongly worded warning, we persist in our legalism. It is only logical that God must expect something out of us! Consequently, many people are intent on pursuing obedience, of obeying a law (like the Ten Commandments, for example), as a component of a relationship with God. Considering how bad we humans are at keeping moral law, it would not be surprising if that relationship were perpetually strained to one extent or another. How could a person possibly feel accepted by God if he/she were offending Him on a regular basis? The bumper sticker answer is not satisfying: “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” That simply does not help me understand how I’m going to build a solid relationship with God if asking for forgiveness is the mainstay of my contact with Him.

I have a good friend whose son and daughter-in-law are in the process of adopting a foster child. The whole ordeal has been lengthy and arduous and emotionally exhausting. The past couple of years have required paperwork, judges, lawyers, the irrational ravings of the biological mother, a psychologically wearing number of small steps forward followed by disheartening setbacks, all repeating multiple times. At this point, the outcome is nearly certain, though. This couple has a little girl in their house whom they want desperately to be part of their family, because they love her. And it looks like it will happen.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote about our adoption by God. Given our strong propensity toward legalism, it is not surprising if we would approach Ephesians from a perspective of legalism. The first three chapters of the letter are all about the paperwork, the judge, the lawyers, the payment of debts owed in order to get my adoption pushed through. I’m taking a small amount of liberty with the details to make it more clear that the typical reading of Ephesians is framed by the legality of the adoption, as if that’s what it is all about. Every couple who adopts must go through the legal system, but the legal matters are not the point of the adoption. For most of my life, I didn’t “get” that because, as a legalist, all I could see was the legal process. Not until recently did I realize that the point of Paul’s statements in Ephesians is not that I would understand the price God paid or the process through which He went, but to make sure that I understood how much God wants me to be with Him. It isn’t about the legal hurdles that God had to pass, but about how much He loves me and accepts me and wants me. In fact, Paul conveys a strong sense that God would do anything to have me be with Him, even if it required sending Jesus to an absolutely humiliating death.

So, if I come to terms with how much God wants me, how does that work out in practical terms?

Have you ever been angry with your spouse and later regretted it. No? Well, I have. Even worse is when this sort of thing happens five minutes before my prayer time in the evening. There was a time, under such circumstances, when my prayer would have been dominated by confession and sorrow and begging forgiveness. But that is just the superficial stuff. Down underneath would have been a sense that God did not really accept me, right at that moment, for who I was. I needed to “make up” through contrition, counting on nothing more than His promises that He’d respond positively. I first had to get rid of the sin through forgiveness. Then, and only then, would everything be ok between us.

I do things every day that are an offense to God and to the people around me. In the context of sin, I can tell you what happens when I go to prayer now. First, I forget the sin. Second, I walk into God’s presence. Third, He puts His arm around me. Fourth, He tells me that He is glad that I am with Him. Fifth, I feel Him smiling at me. Sixth, I tell Him I really blew it. Seventh, He says, “You will treat her better tomorrow,” but I know from experience that His plan for me is much more complex than He’s letting on. Eighth, I tell Him that I cannot express how much I appreciate that He accepts me. Ninth, I sit in my chair and bask in His acceptance.

You may be wondering about step 1: “I forget the sin.” The fact is that I do not go to prayer primarily to confess my sin and “get right with God.” I pray in order to be with God in an intimate way. While I have not appreciated this for most of my life, I now understand that God wants me to come to Him, sin and all. He is not put off by my sin. Christ’s appearance on the scene of human history proves this: he voluntarily and gladly jumped right into the deep end of the cesspool. I do not need to bring up my sin and deal with it before any other communication with God can take place, as if obtaining forgiveness is what will allow the relationship to discharge a roadblock. By the time I have burst through the doors of His throne room, God has already forgiven my sin. He is not waiting to judge me; He is waiting to hug me and help me.

That’s why I still remember Dave. When Dave put his arm around me, although I did not realize it at the time, I was feeling God’s acceptance. God was drawing me back to Himself. Shepherding people is His gift and He is really good at it.