Terrorist No More

Tarrants Before

Tarrants Before

Mrs. Fowler and I attended a weekend conference last month.  After locating our assigned table, I enjoyed making the acquaintance of a rather soft-spoken pastor.  I was later shocked to learn that there was a time I would not have enjoyed being in the same room, much less sharing a meal with him.

I had met Dr. Tom Tarrants.  He is on staff at the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington D.C.  I was interested in his speaking and writing activities, and he was interested to learn that I pastor a house church.  He being about ten years my senior, I asked for and received his counsel on a few matters.  But that’s not the end of it.

The next morning, I met a young man who also works in the DC area.  I mentioned my dinner companion, and learned that he knows Dr. Tarrants quite well.  Then, I thought jokingly, he said, “So, you had dinner with a terrorist.”  He wasn’t joking.

In 1967, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had Tarrants on the Ten Most Wanted list.  As a member of the White Knights of the KKK, he was known to be involved in multiple bombings and crimes of terror.  He was “the most dangerous man in Mississippi.”  The FBI nearly killed him during his capture in the act of placing a bomb.  He earned a prison sentence, but escaped.  After his recapture, and during his years of solitary confinement, he read the Bible, and came to know the real Jesus.  His demeanor was different, the hatred was gone, and he began to make amends even to the agents that captured him.  Many were so moved that they too placed their faith in the One who changes hearts.

Tarrants today

Tarrants today

Later that morning, I stepped into the meeting room set for 500 people, and saw Dr. Tarrants.  I was still wide-eyed at my startling discovery.  I asked him if I could present his story to you, dear reader.  Giving his reluctant approval, he said, “It’s all about God’s grace.”  God can redeem and change even a hate-filled, domestic terrorist.  Tarrants has testified, “I found myself knowing I needed the grace of God and the forgiveness of my sins.  For the first time, what Jesus did on the cross became really precious and personally important to me.”

Tarrants was an angry criminal who needed rescuing.  But a nice, decent person needs a Savior just as much.  “All have sinned,” which surely we already knew (Rom. 3:23).  There are no degrees of being a Christian; either you are, or aren’t.  Faith in Jesus Christ changes your being.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Tom Tarrants is a trophy of God’s grace, a new creature indeed.  One evidence that God exists and the gospel of Christ is true is a changed life.  May your life testify to that truth.


Rich Mullins

Rich Mullins

The movie Ragamuffin begins with a raspy voice declaring, “I am utterly convinced that on judgment day, the Lord Jesus will ask one question and only one question:  Did you believe that I loved you?”  The movie is about Rich Mullins, the Christian songwriter and artist who called himself a “ragamuffin.”

Perhaps you are familiar with some of these songs composed by Mullins: “Awesome God,” “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” “Step By Step,” “Verge of a Miracle.”  You might suppose that the writer of these insightful pieces would be a person unscarred by the hardships of life.  Not so.

Mullins carried some heavy baggage, not unlike the rest of us. His hurts stemmed from feeling unloved and abandoned by people near him.  These wounds affected his ability to accept love, even from God.  Yet he relentlessly pursued a relationship with Jesus, with as many pained steps backward as strained steps forward.

He was driving in Kansas when a friend asked to play him a tape. In a few minutes, Mullins was so moved that he pulled over to weep.  It was Brennan Manning, the raspy voice.  He portrayed Jesus saying, “I know your whole life story.  I know every skeleton in your closet.  I know every moment of sin and shame, dishonesty, degraded love that’s darkened your past.  I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.  My word to you is I dare you to trust that I love you just are you are, not as you should be.”  Because none of us are as we should be.

Mullins later met Manning, who explained that ragamuffins “are the unsung assembly of saved sinners who are little in their own sight, aware of their brokenness, and powerless before God. A ragamuffin knows he’s only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.”  Manning later captured his thoughts on grace in The Ragamuffin Gospel.  Mullins added the foreword to the book.

Mullins’ lyrics for “Hold Me Jesus” are his honest, but hopeful testimony: Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all, when the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small. So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf!  You have been King of my glory, won’t You be my Prince of Peace?

Jesus Christ wants you to receive his unconditional love, even if you carry around pain and loneliness that can block your way to Him. He bore great pain to offer you his life-changing love.  Manning wrote, “Jesus is so unbearably forgiving, so infinitely patient, and so unendingly loving that he provides us with the resources we need to live lives of gracious response.”  So is Paul’s prayer that you “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).

Mullins passed away in a tragic accident in 1997. Manning died in 2013 at the age of 78.  But their message resonates that Jesus even loves ragamuffins.  The movie is on Netflix.

Amazing Grace

In October 2015, the posh Citizen Hotel in Sacramento hosted a banquet like never before. What happened is an everyday example of grace, a gift neither earned nor deserved.  Since grace describes God’s love and rejoicing over mankind, such examples help us visualize the Gospel.

The story begins with Quinn Duane being within a week of her long-anticipated wedding day. Plans for the ceremony and dinner reception were complete.  But in a phone call to her mother, she explained that the groom got cold feet and canceled.  Since the reception was non-refundable, replacing disappointment with generosity, they hatched a plan to invite homeless souls to a meal they wouldn’t forget.

So on a beautiful fall day in California, with the help of several homeless shelters, about 90 homeless men, women, and children, some in dress clothes, filed into the fancy venue and dined on gnocchi, salmon, and tri-tip beef with all the trimmings.  For the moment, they were free from their hard lives in the streets while enjoying a feast they could not have imagined before now.  It cost them nothing other than accepting the invitation.

This story is almost identical to one chronicled by Philip Yancy in What’s So Amazing About Grace? He retells other true stories.  A teenage girl runs away only to become a prostitute in Detroit, and after becoming sick and homeless she returns to the welcoming arms of her family.  A vagrant in New York dumpster-dives for restaurant toss-outs, and finds a lottery ticket that pays $243,000 for each of the next 20 years.  A venture capitalist refuses to accept the repayment offer from an entrepreneur in Los Angeles when the startup fails due to world events.  Yancy follows Jesus’ example of storytelling about grace in an attempt to overcome our natural resistance to it.

We have a difficult time with God’s grace because we want a god that responds only to efforts and achievements, or lack of. It doesn’t seem fair that God loves the world (John 3:16) and its prodigals.  That love does not mean he winks at sin.  No, sending the Son to suffer and die was no trivial matter, but He did it before you loved Him back.  You will have a hard time earning God’s love if it existed in extravagance before you were even born.

One of Jesus’s stories was about a wedding feast for the king’s son. The first group of invitees was unwilling, and abused the messengers.  Then the king said, “Go to the main highways, and as many as you find there invite to the wedding feast” (Mat. 22:9).  Jesus has prepared his own great banquet, and the invitations have been issued.  It is an invitation to receive His gift of love.  And that, friend, is amazing grace.

Not Judged

JudgeI put the jury summons in a prominent place on my desk. I wrote the date on my calendar. I actually looked forward to doing my part for law and order. One Monday morning casually starting the week, I suddenly realized it was today! I had one of those gasping, dash to the car, hope I don’t get a speeding ticket panics.

I slipped into the courtroom embarrassed and tardy by 45 minutes. Soon the judge allowed everyone to leave except the selected jurors, and me. Summoned to the bench I made no excuses and braced myself because I failed a legal obligation. I did not want to face judgment.

Who does? Judgment usually means someone else decides if your behavior is acceptable. Our post-modern mindset that everyone can have their own values is probably why the most oft-quoted Bible phrase is “Judge not lest you be judged,” especially by those who heed no other verse.

If it’s true that every yearning of the human heart can only be completely fulfilled by God, then the yearning to escape judgment is no different. But effecting such escape cannot come from believing that God cannot be both of love and judgment. Believing something doesn’t make it so! So how, then, does God fulfill our yearning to avoid the final gavel?

Jesus has the answer. “He who believes in (the Son) is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already because he has not believed” (John 3:18). Remarkable! Here it is again: “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24). Faith in Christ means you are not judged the way an unbeliever is. Paul explained further, “He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us…having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). The indictment against the believer is canceled!

Grace really is good news! But beware that grace truly contemplated risks being misunderstood as license to sin. Paul took that risk, but checked it twice by declaring that grace does not allow believers to live an unrepentant life. He explains to the contrary that the believer’s identity is Christ, freed from sin and now a slave of righteousness (Rom. 6).

It is good news that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. What remains is for you to believe and enjoy!

So, back to my story. Either the judge saw my sincere remorse, or he was just too busy to fool with me. Whichever the case, he let me go with a stern warning. I walked into the courthouse already guilty; I walked out not judged. My gratitude made me determined to be a model citizen. Thanks, Judge.

Grapevines of Grace

VineyardThe idea of agritourism is really catching on in Georgia.  Around the state but especially in North Georgia, vineyards are a big draw, with estimated economic impact of $15 million.  Viticulture has persisted throughout history, so no surprise that Jesus spoke to the ages with lessons from the vine.

 Jesus may have been walking by a vineyard with his disciples when he spoke these words: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  To the one who tries so hard and fails so often to live a righteous life, this is a foreign thought.  The branch does no work but cling to the vine.  The believer to be fruitful has but one goal, to abide (reside) in Jesus.

 Hudson Taylor, notable missionary to China, discovered this secret, and he came to call it the ‘exchanged life.’  Though full of activity as he tried to do enough to please God, he suffered the futility of never being enough.  You can hear the relief in a letter to his sister, “The weight and strain are all gone.  But how to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One.  I am no longer anxious about anything as I realize this; for He, I know is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. His grace is sufficient.”

 The believer is “in Him.”  What are the things that can only be true because of that, and not from our own activity and futility?  We are a new creation.  We are his workmanship.  We receive the gift of his own righteousness.  Seventy times in the New Testament, ordinary believers are called ‘saints’ (holy ones).  We no longer live but Christ lives in us.  If all these things are what God does as we abide in Christ, how is it possible to add to them by our own effort?  Ephesians 1 is the “in Him” chapter.  Read it and be blessed while you learn to rest.

 Taylor shared with his friends a booklet with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s words, “How, then shall a Christian bear fruit? By efforts and struggles to obtain that which is freely given; by meditations on watchfulness, on prayer, on action, on temptation, and on dangers? No: there must be a full concentration of the thoughts and affections on Christ; a complete surrender of the whole being to Him; a constant looking to Him for grace.”

 You know the words of the song Amazing Grace.  You know God’s grace means His unmerited favor toward you.  But do you know the exchanged life that comes from abiding in the Vine?  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Finding Freedom

Angola Prison

 In his recent book, Why Suffering, Ravi Zacharias recounts a conversation with an inmate in the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana: “I asked him, ‘How do you handle the prospect that you will never get out of here, and that this is where your life will now be spent?’ He answered, ‘You know sir, if you knew the kind of person I was before I came here, and what I have now become because of the freedom Jesus Christ has brought to my soul, I can only say that if this is what it took to bring me to my senses, I am happy to spend the rest of my life here.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Please pray for my parents. They think they are free, but they are in a prison of their own darkness without God.’ That evening it was all I could do to fight back the tears as I watched this same man leading more than 700 prisoners in worship.” 

 There is a man changed by freedom, though in prison for life! Christians believe that Christ sets us free, which implies that we are in a kind of bondage. It’s usually offensive to suggest something’s wrong when you didn’t ask, but consider me a former prisoner trying to show others the way out. 

 Look, life is not supposed to be like this. Temporary love, broken trust, and subjective truth are too common. Children are at risk, addicts choose wrongly, and money is loved. The big Ten are just suggestions. Our churches can be showcases for saints instead of hospitals for sinners. We do what we don’t want, and don’t do what we do want. We have conflicting passions and goals. Such is the human condition – it is bondage, and it hurts. 

 What can you do? Attend meetings, join something, set new rules, cover bad by doing good. But all that just leads to more bondage. If you’ve tried it, you know what I mean. 

 The Hebrew prophet Isaiah foretold a Savior who would release captives and set free the oppressed. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of that message. He explained that if we continue in his word, we are his disciples. His disciples know the truth which sets us free. Free indeed, but from what? Free from the demands of the law by his gift of grace. Free from sin to live godly lives. Free from death to be eternally alive. Author T.W. Hunt says, “God’s intention is that we be free from this world’s mind-set. In doing that, God binds us to His mind-set, the mind of Christ.” 

 God accepts and forgives according to your faith, not how well you perform. By faith, he transforms your mind, and your life reflects Christ. By God’s grace, that is freedom!