In 1998, I preached an eight-part series at my church on my favorite Christian topic: grace.
The series was a minor hit. The sermons were recorded on cassette tapes, packaged and distributed by the guys who worked in our church's sound booth.
Several people told me then, and have repeated in the years since, that the grace series changed their lives. It's not often my sermons provoke that kind of response.
Recently, a friend arranged to have those old tapes transferred from cassettes to compact discs so he and others could listen to the sermons again.
I got a copy of the new CDs myself. I wanted to hear what I'd said that made such an impression on folks.
What I heard wasn't exactly what I'd expected. Somehow my 1998 self managed to simultaneously bless, sadden and appall my 2011 self.
Before I get to that, a short explanation of the series' topic, grace.
I believed 13 years ago that grace is the single most important theme in the New Testament. No contest.
Grace says that God's love for us and God's acceptance of us have nothing to do with our own individual goodness or our religious works. Instead, we enjoy a relationship with God and receive spiritual and even temporal blessings from him because of who God is, not because of who we are or what we do.
He loves, welcomes and forgives us because that's the essence of his personality. He is profoundly gracious by nature.
It's more complicated than that — after all, it took me eight lengthy sermons just to cover the high points, and I skipped a lot of the nuances even then.
But that's the gist of what I said.
Listening again to those sermons blessed me because they reminded me of a lot of powerful scriptures I hadn't read in a while, and because I was pleased to find that, all these years later, I still believe about grace pretty much what I believed then.
The topic of grace is unfailingly edifying, and frequently my old self buoyed my current self.
Yet I also was saddened. I've always had a habit of addressing individual members of my congregation as I preach. It's a fluke of mine.
I was reminded as I heard myself talk that the congregation in those days was twice the size of my church today. I heard myself telling stories about, and making impromptu jokes with, people I loved who are no longer with me.
Some are dead.
Others got angry with me or hurt — rightly or wrongly — and left for other places.
As I listened, I grieved for that younger guy with a growing church and no idea of what lay in store.
I also found myself appalled by him.
I hate to say it, but he was embarrassingly brash and cocksure. He had the answers for everyone. He had few doubts about himself or his own spiritual strength. He expected non-stop success, assumed it was virtually his birthright.
In one sermon, for instance, I rattled on about how, if you truly understood the depths of grace — if "you" understood it, mind you, because "I" certainly did understand it — you'd know that it frees you from worrying and fretting.
Whatever your outward circumstances, I said, you could remain at peace in your heart. You could be unfailingly joyful because you'd know God was with you, and he was in control of the situation and always working for your good.
The smug guy preaching that message had no clue that within a couple of years his wife would be diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he'd spend five years sitting at her bedside, that he'd wind up exhausted and doubt-filled and broken, that he would pop Prozac like Pez just to keep from running away.
That guy had no inkling how fast and how far he could fall, how easily his faith could be dashed, how thoroughly he could lose all sight of the grace he was preaching.
The paradox is, despite that — probably because of the very hardships I endured — my faith in God's grace is today, if anything, stronger than it was in 1998. What has changed is that I no longer believe in myself.
Back then I recognized God's grace intellectually.
Now I've lived it.
I've been through hell, flailed, railed, come out the other side — to find that the good Lord really was clutching my hand and guiding me the whole way. Even when I didn't believe in him, he still believed in me, and loved me anyway.
When others left, he stayed.
When I howled at him in pain and rage, he encouraged me.
When I was weaker than I ever dreamed I could be, he held me up.
When I couldn't be held up anymore and I crumbled, he stood watch over me.
That, my friends, is what grace is all about.