For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Last TICOS Post...And The Last Verse of the Bible

 "May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen".

This is the last verse of the Bible, and it is a fitting text for my final post as pastor of Trinity International Church of Strasbourg. As the ending words of Scripture, the Holy Spirit magnifies the importance of grace. It is an essential reminder for us as a church family. 

Salvation by grace through faith.
The gospel is at the core of our message as a church. We are guilty sinners and worthy of the wrath of God. But God, in his mercy, graciously sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. Those who repent and believe in him are forgiven and receive eternal life. This salvation is completely undeserved. We deserve wrath and are given forgiveness. It is gift. This is grace. Most people struggle with this concept. Either they think that they must do something to receive grace (go to church, give money to the poor, etc.) or they think that they have done something evil (like adultery, stealing, murder, etc.) that disqualifies them from receiving grace. The grace of God found in the gospel must remain central to what we believe and to our ministry as a church. In fact, if it doesn't, TICOS will cease to be a true church. 

Ongoing walk with God by grace (and the challenges of international life).
One of the ways I have grown in my relationship with God while here at TICOS has been understanding how deeply embedded the idea of the blessings of God being tied to my performance is in my soul. There are things that make me feel worthy of his love that were stripped away in the transition to life here. The result was a fresh discovery of grace.
One of these things was a sense of competence. In the United States I considered myself to be fairly adept in a number of areas, but moving to France meant that those areas were stripped away. Mailing a letter, buying groceries, and understanding street signs all became challenges. While they have become easy with time, the experience of uselessness chipped away at my sense of value. It exposed the fact that I thought I was valuable because of what I could do rather than considering myself valuable because I am loved by God.
Not only that, but the stresses of expat life reveal cracks in our character. Impatience, anger, criticalness and other sins are exposed. This ugliness can make us feel unworthy of God's love. We can think that there is no way God can still love us after we lose our temper (again).  Of course, we are unworthy of God's love, but he loves us anyway. That is the point of grace. And by understanding grace we can start to deal with the the sinful patterns that God has graciously brought to our attention by bringing us to a new place.
This is why the grace of God is so important to the TICOS family. It brings us into the presence of God Almighty.

Grace with others.
It isn't just in our relationship with God that we need to understand grace. We need it in relationship with other people. In order to love others as Christ loved us, we need to extend grace and mercy to other people. We need to live gracious lives. It is not an option but a basic part of following Jesus and is one of the building blocks of church unity. Because churches are made up of redeemed sinners of various degrees of maturity, we will need to extend undeserved and unearned love toward others. We will need to forgive, bear with, and embrace others.

Grace in the International Church - Cultures/Experiences/Short-termers.
An international church like TICOS is a great place to earn a graduate degree in extending grace.  With such a wide variety of cultures and languages coming together, the opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt feelings are around every corner. If we withhold love and acceptance every time someone does something that offends or annoys us, TICOS will become a cold and hard place. With grace, it becomes alive with the presence of God.

Our cultures give us certain expectations about how people "should" behave. We will differ in how free we are to express our opinion, how much we should question leaders, how early (or late) we should come to a worship service or dinner and how long we should stay, etc. For example, bringing a gift when going to someone's home for dinner is a cultural expectation in France. Failure to bring a gift can be seen as being a little rude. A foreigner may learn this and adopt the habit, but even then make mistakes that could easily offend. Like the time we brought a big bouquet of mums as a gift. (In France, mums are only used to decorate graves!) Thankfully, our hostess extended grace rather than being upset.

Our cultures also teach us to interpret things people do and say. "He wouldn't have said 'x' if he really didn't think 'y'" is an equation that is culturally learned. For example, in American culture a mild "put down" of someone is usually a sign of friendship. We wouldn't joke that way with someone we didn't like. In other cultures, it can be considered highly offensive. After all, why would you put down your friend?

On top of cultural differences is the fact that we must deal with multiple languages in TICOS. When we listen to others it is easy to assume we understand what someone means. But if they are not speaking their native language, there is the possibility that they did not actually say exactly what they meant. If we are listening to a native language speaker, we may not have the capacity to interpret what they said. These difficulties were initially designed by God to bring division between people. Overcoming them requires grace.

Grace is also needed because the international church is made up of some people who are "short-termers." They may only be in town for a few months or a year or two. If they choose to get involved, they will need to learn how we do things. This requires grace while they learn because it takes time to figure things out. Then again, some may choose not to get involved in serving. They may not want to commit to something because they are only here for a short time. What an opportunity for those who are "long-termers" to extend grace and love to them while they are here, even if they are not helping in practical ways!

Fortunately, during the five years I have been here in Strasbourg, I have seen the people of TICOS extend grace over and over again. Their love and mercy seems to know no bounds. Their willingness to listen and to understand people from different backgrounds overwhelms me sometimes.

Perhaps that is why I think the perfect final sentence in my final blog article echoes the last verse of the Bible:

May the grace of Lord Jesus be with all the saints 
(and especially my friends at TICOS). 

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