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KYLE IDLEMAN
Grace Is Greater

   By Rob Wilkens, Outreach Magazine

  As teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the largest churches in the nation, Kyle Idleman often tells stories of beautiful collisions that happen when desperate, messed-up people meet Jesus.

  Idleman has come to see how redemptive stories ride on grace.

  Take one of his favorite stories: Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant. It serves as a framework for outreach at Southeast Christian.

  "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go." (Matt. 18:23-27)

  In the beginning of the story, you are led to believe the servant, having experienced extravagant grace, might be eager to share it with others.

  In an interview with Outreach magazine, Idleman sat down to explore how stories take strange turns, bringing together such diverse realities as Taco Hut toilets, drunk drivers and outreach in the center of God's grace.

Growing up, what did you learn about grace?

  I grew up with my dad as a seminary president. I grew up seeing grace modeled in my home and my family, but the emphasis was often heavy on academia. The longer I am in ministry, I have discovered the need to not just explain grace but experience it. I grew up being taught that forgiveness was based on the other person doing something to make it right. Whenever I offended one of my siblings, my parents would say, "You need to make that right."
  Now that's a good thing for a parent to teach, but what I inferred from that is that you give grace when the other person makes it right. By definition grace does not work that way. Grace is what God does for us and it's not based on the fact that we made it right.

Did you always dream of becoming a pastor?

  I really didn't have any idea of what I wanted to be. When I was 19 years old I started to preach at a church with about 20 people, mostly because nobody else was available and I was a freshman at a Bible college. I don't know how to say this in a way I will feel good about in print, but I don't do well in large groups of people. I thought that was required for a pastor, so I just did not think that was what I wanted to do. I was interested in counseling or psychology. I preached at that church maybe five or six times and then realized this is really what I wanted to do. God kind of tricked me into it; He had me doing it before He asked.

When did you begin to experience grace yourself?

  After graduating from college, I wanted to preach somewhere but nobody was interested. I was 21 and I can't blame anyone for not responding to my resume. I knew God was calling me to preach so my wife and I decided to help plant a church in Valencia, California.
  As I was leading it, I became very aware of my inadequacies and weaknesses and I was feeling overwhelmed. We started the church in a movie theater and, maybe a month into it, attendance had dropped quite a bit from opening weekend. I remember sitting in the empty theater at 5:30 in the morning before setting up for the service. I told God, "I just can't do this." I pleaded for his help. In that moment, I experienced God's grace in a profound way. God wasn't telling me everything was going to turn out great. He was telling me He was with me and His grace was sufficient. Even if it didn't turn out OK, it was OK.

Can you tell me about the connection between a Taco Hut toilet and your current job as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville?

  [Laughing] You've picked up on the one story that no one else has had the courage to ask me about. I'm having trouble recalling the details.

I'll be patient. I really want to hear you
tell that story.

  [Still Laughing] The first thing I would like to say is that I don't mean to throw all Taco Hut bathrooms under the bus. Then I would tell you I think you'd be better off with the written version.

In Grace is Greater, Idleman writes:

  I'm at my dream job because of a disgusting toilet.
  Not long after getting my driver's license, I borrowed my mom's car to drive to Taco Hut. After eating at Taco Hut, I ran into the house. I came out a little later and saw my mom's car had rolled down the driveway and smashed through the mailbox. The reason the car rolled down the hill is because I forgot to put it in park because there was no way I was going to use the bathroom at Taco Hut.

  The car had significant damage, so I got a job to pay for the repair.

  I got a job at the Precious Moments Chapel as a tour guide.

  Then one week a small church in town was desperate for a preacher. The reason I felt comfortable preaching that first weekend was because of that job I got when I was 16.

  Are you still with me? The reason I have my dream job preaching at an amazing church is because the bathroom of Taco Hut was disgusting.

The significance of the Taco Hut toilet is to show that grace is unpredictable, right?

  I was trying to show how God reverse-engineers grace. You don't realize it until you look back that all these things that seem so messed up, you can really draw a line from there to the good that God was accomplishing. Sometimes we look back and realize we were complaining about a blessing. God's grace was at work in our lives, but we were too busy grumbling to be grateful for it. It also shows in my own life how God used unexpected and often confusing circumstances to bring me to where I am at now.

OK, other than the Taco Hut toilet,
what else brought you to Southeast?

  With the church plant in California, I could see some of the challenges ahead in terms of facilities and endless Los Angeles County meetings trying to get land. I knew that was going to be something that I wasn't gifted to do. I had done an internship at Southeast after graduating college. I knew the culture and sensed the role of teaching pastor would be a good fit. So we came to Louisville 13 years ago.

In your book Grace is Greater, you write that stories are the best way to communicate grace. Why do you say that?

  Story captures grace in a way that explanation can't. The genre of story matches up with the experience of the idea. In the Gospels, Jesus doesn't teach on the word grace specifically but we see grace in stories of beautiful collisions-the places where desperate, messed-up people meet the person of Jesus. Stories allow us to connect powerfully to the experience of grace.

The subtitle of your book includes the phrase, Rewrite Your Story. How does grace do this?

  A popular phrase you hear these days is the idea of flipping the script. The story looks like it is going one way and then, unexpectedly, it goes in another. I think grace is not just the idea of erasing the past, it's starting over. Rewriting a story is even more powerful than starting a new story. He doesn't take the things that are broken away, but he takes those broken pieces and turns it into something that is beautiful. God's grace rewrites our lives.

Practically, how does Southeast circulate
these stories of grace?

  We learn and tell stories strategically and corporately. In our church we do that during baptism most weekends. We get a little peek into a person's story. We do that with communion and we talk about what God has given us that we don't deserve.
  Every week we meet with a small number of people who are new to the church and say, "Hey, how did you end up here?" As leaders, we connect with our people's stories.
  One of the things we do as elders is gather together every Tuesday morning, and we pray together for people who are struggling in various ways. We learn their stories. As we pray together for God's redeeming work or conviction or repentance, it aligns our hearts with grace. It almost forces grace front and center.

Do you think all great stories
find their center in grace?

  When you hear someone else's story about receiving or giving forgiveness, it automatically triggers a personal connection. I believe it's true with almost any redemptive story that it can't help but engage others.
  On Dateline, 20/20 and 60 Minutes you often see the story of a person extending forgiveness to someone who doesn't deserve it. When I hear the background it almost always reveals someone who has experienced the grace of God. They are giving what they have received. That is, by definition, grace. It flows. You receive it and you give it.

How do you empower a community
to tell honest stories?

  In the last 15 years, a key word in the church has been authenticity. I think vulnerability is probably a little bit deeper. The more vulnerable people are in telling their stories, the more powerful the potential.

In Grace Is Greater, Idleman tells an embarrassing story about himself.

  It was Thursday morning and I was lying in bed next to my wife. She had fallen asleep but I was awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about my sermon for the weekend. The focus on my message was on learning to live with regrets. I suddenly heard a crash come from our bathroom. I hopped out of bed and ran in, and saw that the full-length mirror that had been hanging on our closet door had fallen off and was in pieces on the floor. When that mirror fell, it exposed something that I deeply regretted.

  How did the closet door end up with a hole in it? I got into an argument with my wife. To be honest I don't even remember what it was about. But I got angry, lost my temper, and punched a hole in the closet door.

  After the mirror fell and broke, I stood there and looked at the hole in the door and then down at the floor. I could see my reflection in the broken shards.

You shared that story the following Sunday during your sermon. Why tell a story about
punching a hole in a door?

  I know, you're already thinking, the guy who punches a hole in the wall, you don't want to be that guy. But that was the point: I was that guy. I felt like God wanted me to share it. It also fit perfectly with my sermon about regret.

What was the reaction to you
sharing the story?

  The power of sharing was really surprising to me. People lined up after the services and they were saying, "Me too." So many guys came up to say, "I've never told this to anyone, but I've done that." By being vulnerable it created a greater culture of grace with one another in our community. It was safe for people to be vulnerable themselves. When I was vulnerable, I repented and discovered grace and other people did too.
  This is what I mean by a culture of vulnerability where it's safe to be honest. Instead of pointing a finger, the church raises a hand and says, "Me too."

But it makes you look bad.

  It was really hard, not just because it was embarrassing to me. It was embarrassing for my wife and for my kids, but it was true. I once read a quote from a pastor named Jean F. Larroux III: "If the biggest sinner you know isn't you, then you don't know yourself very well."
  When I first read that, I was a little bit defensive. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 1:15: "Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst."
  Some people assume Paul was talking about his past mistakes as a persecutor of saints. But Paul doesn't use the past tense. He says am not was. When I know myself better, I realize even the good I do is often times motivated by my selfishness, my pride and my desire to impress other people.

What are the consequences
of not understanding the depth
of our own sinfulness?

  In Hebrews 12:15, the author pleads: "See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." The idea of a bitter root is that it's a poisonous plant.
  I think that's the danger for the church. If grace is not explained, experienced and celebrated in the church, it plants poisonous seeds, which root and grow and things get toxic. A lot of times grace gets put on the opposite side of sanctification, but that's not biblically true.
  In Scripture it's all about grace. Titus 2:11-12 says: "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives."
  In the church we want grace to be the motivation for our godliness; we want grace to be what inspires how we treat other people.

The story of the unforgiving servant
takes a strange turn.

  "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.'
  But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'" (Matt. 18:28-33

You talk about how the church should be outraged by "ungrace." Outraged?

  In Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant, the guy is forgiven this great debt, but when he refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, the rest of the servants were outraged by it. That's what I'm talking about. In our community, the one area where we should have some outrage when it comes to sin is when grace is being withheld. As a church, you want to confront that.

In Grace Is Greater, Idleman shares a true story of unconditional grace.

  Elizabeth and Frank Morris' 18-year-old son, Ted, was home from college for Christmas break. He had gotten a job to make a little money. It was late, and Elizabeth was worried; he was supposed to be home from work. That's when the phone rang. Elizabeth answered and received the news no mother wants to hear.
  On Ted's drive home a car coming the other way had crossed the median and hit him head-on. Tommy Pigage was driving the other car. He had been at a party where he got drunk. He blacked out and never saw Ted Morris' car coming.

  Tommy reached a plea-bargain that allowed him to be freed on probation. Tommy was now free, and Elizabeth began having revenge fantasies in which she would kill him.

  But Elizabeth had a problem. She was the recipient of grace. A Christian, Elizabeth took her pain to God and as she prayed she realized that her heavenly Father had also had his innocent son murdered. She knew she had to forgive Tommy as God had forgiven her. Elizabeth went and met with Tommy. She told him she wanted to help. Tommy came from a broken home and struggled with alcoholism. He needed help. Elizabeth and Frank began building a relationship and talking to him about Jesus.

  One night, the Morrises and Tommy drove to their church, where Frank Morris baptized his son's killer.

You believe reconciliation best demonstrates the love of God through his divine grace. Why?

  Grace at its deepest level - and that is what the Morrises represent - is reconciliation. When it doesn't just end but there is this new beginning. The church has the most potential to model the gospel when we go to that level of grace and forgiveness. There is a willingness not just to let go of bad feelings and the debt that is owed, but also to actually reconcile with the person who hurt you.
  Sometimes, reconciliation is not possible. You can't take it to the next level if the other person doesn't repent. But when reconciliation happens, it's pure grace. It's what God has done for us. He didn't just forgive us but calls us into loving relationship. When the church models that - whether it's in our homes, our marriages, our neighborhoods - it is a beautiful image of the message of the gospel and is a powerful and profound witness.

As a pastor, what have you learned
about grace

  The way we word it at Southeast is: Stop thinking about what's been done to you and start thinking about what's been done for you. It involves taking a thought captive - Hey, this is what this person has done to me - and replace it with a focus of what Jesus has done for me. The experience of that kind of grace transforms our closest relationships, either current ones or from a long time ago. When that light goes on, and we really get hold of that, we experience supernatural power in our lives.

~ from outreachmagazine.com ~

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Kyle Idleman
"Grace Is Greater: God's Plan to Overcome Your Past, Redeem Your Pain, and Rewrite Your Story (Paperback)"


The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God." Over the centuries much ink has been spilled on the subject of grace. Yet perhaps nothing is as hard to explain as God's grace. It doesn't make sense. It's not fair. It can't possibly cover over what I've done. The best way--perhaps the only real way--to understand it is to experience it. But too often in our churches we're not getting grace across and grace is not experienced.
Bestselling author and pastor Kyle Idleman wants everyone to experience the grace of God. Through the powerful medium of story, Grace Is Greater leads readers past their hang-ups toward an understanding of grace that is bigger than our mistakes, our failures, our desire for revenge, and our seemingly impossible situations. No sin is so great, no bitterness so deep that God's grace cannot transform the heart and rewrite the story.
Perfect for individuals and also for small groups and church-wide studies, Grace Is Greater will help readers truly grasp God's grace, even if the Christians around them have failed to live it.

Kyle Idleman
"The End of Me
: Where Real Life in the
Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins
"


Have you ever come to the end of yourself? Maybe it was that day when your life changed forever. The day that your house was foreclosed on, you discovered your spouse was having an affair, or you were told you only had months to live. In those moments, all the plans, dreams and ambitions you had for yourself came to a crashing halt. And you discover that all you have left is Jesus. In The End of Me, Kyle Idleman explores these difficult moments by looking at four of the beattitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. In the first section of the book, each chapter will focus on a different paradoxical teaching of Christ. In the second half, you'll look at real-life examples of people who have lived the upside-down life that Jesus describes. Only when you come to the end of yourself will you begin to be transformed into the whole, blessed person God made you to be.

Kyle Idleman
"Gods At War: Defeating the Idols That Battle for Your Heart"

Kyle Idleman
"Not a Fan: Updated and Expanded: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus"

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