Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Transitions and Intentions


 

Pastors see lots of different and unique situations over the course of years of ministry.  I remember hearing someone (who escapes my memory) say pastors see the good, the bad and the ugly.  Transitional ministers, called intentional interim ministers in the LCMS, are usually called to serve congregations who are in the midst of major transitions.  For example there will almost always be great potential for instability when a pastor of many years leaves suddenly especially if it is completely unplanned as in a death.  Or if there is conflict in the congregation that seems unsolvable or has lead to a large exodus from a church.  So it has been a common expectation that a congregation that has secured the services of a transitional pastor are somehow in the "bad and ugly" category.  But that would be a mistake. Increasingly congregations between pastors are proactively utilizing the transitional minister to engage in a period of "intentional" reflection to seek to maximize untapped potentiality and be as faithful as possible as Christ's disciples in the ministry of the congregation.  

Transitional ministry is about far more than just answering what should a congregation look for in the next pastor.  The pastor is a very important, even essential part of a congregation, but not the only part.  The congregation is composed of many parts united into one as the family of God in that place.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:

 12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Congregations are composed of individuals who share commonality.  They share a culture with rules, roles and values.  There is quite often an understood way of doing things that can be very productive or may be a hold over from a previous era of productivity but isn't quite getting the job done today because something has changed.  You may know the old story of the young lady observing her mother cutting the end off the roast before putting it into the pan to cook.  When asked why, she said my mom taught me to do that.  When she asked her grandma why she did that she said, because my pan was too small.  

The point is that for a congregation to seek out the assistance of a transitional minister is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and a sign of faithfulness to ministry.  In fact it is the congregation in decline, experiencing instability or conflict, that is not weathering a change in situation well,  that  closes in and determines to keep on keeping on doing the same things resisting self-discovery and transparency, even sometimes accountability, that is falling short of its potential and missing an opportunity for recovery and growth.  As it is has been said it is the definition of irrationality to keep on doing the same things and expect a different outcome.  And of course if a congregation is experiencing difficulty navigating turbulent changes in situations or conflict or is suddenly experiencing an exodus of members and the leadership seem to be overwhelmed or ineffective then certainly the help of an intentional interim minister can be useful,  perhaps necessary.

Congregational systems can be very interesting.  When they are working and working well changing them for the sake of change can be foolish.  It depends on the direction of the congregation because just as individual people experience change over time so do congregations.  If a congregation is stable and growing then for that place and time it may have very effective systemic structures operating which would incur risk of instability and negative trajectory if too much, unneeded or unnecessary change is introduced.  A lot of conflict, instability, and loss of membership can be traced by to the imposition of unwanted and unnecessary change.   But sometimes systems get stuck, flow in sort of an orbit which we think is stable but only after time discover was slowly degrading.  Intentional and proactive examination and wise decision making regarding changes can help boost the congregation back into a healthy trajectory.  And if your congregation has a negative trajectory, you know it. You can see it and feel it -- usually.

Congregational systems can be very interesting in another way too.  The longer they endure they more likely they are to take on a life of their own.  For example a pretty common characteristic of some congregations is that of a key central leader.  It is not unheard of to have a congregational president or head elder or treasurer or some other influential leader be in place (either holding one office or different offices) for years.  But time passes and no one lives forever.  But nature abhors a vacuum and systems like to stay the same (we call that homeostasis).  Systems have sticking power.  So even if Mr. Ed the head elder of 40 years passes away, the system will almost certainly raise up someone similar to Mr. Ed to fill the void.  The people change but the system endures, sometimes over generations.  

For example a congregation large enough to have many elders operated with 3-4 of those elders forming an "executive committee" who worked very closely as an extension of the long-term and beloved senior pastor making most of the decisions in that congregation.  But when the pastor died and this became dysfunctional because of a weak head elder and conflict erupted between the executive committee and the church council, the dysfunction was named and the "executive committee" was eliminated and the held elder retired.  But within a year there was another small group making the decisions.  The decision making mechanism was not transferred to the council or even the Voters but rather in the vacuum of the "executive committee" another small group arose comprised of the new senior pastor, a few elders and a few other officers making most of the decisions for the congregation and informing people what would be what. The unique and curious thing was that the members of this new small group were mostly new leaders, but soon they were functioning very similar to the old leaders.  In effect the "executive committee" was reborn.  Why?  It is an unconscious group mechanism for systems don't like to change, even if the congregation has grown beyond them and they no longer function as they should.   Systems often need to be intentionally changed by design for there to be productive and lasting change.

This is why from time to time any congregation can benefit from a period of "intentional" examination especially if it is experiencing the moment of a transition because transitions are pregnant with potential for growth and restoration.  It is not something a pastor, congregational leadership, or congregational members should be afraid of considering.   It is not a sign of weakness to say we could benefit from an time of intentional examination and reflection using outside eyes.  Indeed, it could be a sign of weakness to refuse to acknowledge that "we" need this.  Intentional self-examination done with transparency, accountability, and honesty almost always leads to some form of growth.  But when we navigate the transitions poorly, allow dysfunctional leadership and systems to remain in place, when we see our congregation faltering, potential wasted, settling for less than we should, even members exiting for what they see as greener pastures,  and double down on doing more of the same or hide our heads in the sand we do God's people a great disservice. 


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Where is Encouragment?

 

Where is Encouragement?

August 28, 2021

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. (Rev 6)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6)

 (From the readings of Holy Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost)

 

 I must confess this has been a discouraging week.  Many people I care about are in pain, pain that will not easily heal.  I believe that for many of us, watching the debacle that is Afghanistan has been disheartening.   I watched our retreat from Afghanistan with sadness and frustration as the Taliban swiftly strode in and in a matter of days took Afghanistan back to where it was twenty years ago.  But this could not compare to the horror and dismay of learning of the bombing at the airport in Kabul that cost the lives of thirteen young service members, wounding eighteen others, as well as killing many civilians including a British family with a young child who were just moments from safety.

Later that day came the news came that a friend of my family, a former parishioner, a young mother with two young children had passed after a three week battle with Covid.   Then in the afternoon, a friend from High School posted she had lost her husband of over 30 years to the same.  

It has been a sad and frustrating week, a week where the tragedy of this world is on stage, a week where we are reminded of just how powerless we are in the face of so many things.   We hurt for the hurting.  We grieve for the grieving.  And we know there is more suffering to come.  These are wounds that do not heal quickly.   They remain with us when we awake the next day and the next week. 

Our reading from Revelation for the 14th Sunday of Pentecost reads:   When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.   The Gospel story from Mark tells us of the beheading of John the Baptist.  The Gospels show us that when the news came to Jesus and the disciples, many of whom had first followed John, that it was hard and distressing for them.  Jesus sought out time alone with His disciples because they needed it.  We may understand if some of the disciples wondered why Jesus had not asked His Father to intervene and save John.   I read the comments of one woman who proclaimed the blood of the last week proves that God does not exist for if God existed all this evil would not.

Scripture reveals to us a stark truth.    God will permit Christians to die even because of their faith.  Does that mean that God will never intervene?  No, but there is no promise that God will intervene.    The Gospel reminds us of John killed for proclaiming the truth of God's Word to political power.   Revelation describes saints killed for their faith.  What does that mean?  We'll come back to that.

Right now Christians are under threat in Afghanistan, lethal threat.  News is coming through from organizations and from some of my friends who have connections in various church bodies with mission efforts there with reports of Christians being killed and threatened, especially clergy and missionaries.  Reports of coming in of losing contact with Christians.   There are reports of Christians reaching out to US contacts begging for help to get them out.  But the biggest problem is they can't get to the airport and even if they do, Christians don't get priority for evacuation because of their faith.    One Christian pastor wrote partners in the US saying he and his entire congregation expected to be martyred this week.   Contact has been lost with them.

From war, persecution, plague and a host of things beyond our control we are seeing the world as it truly is when Jesus Christ is not at the heart of things.  We are seeing a fallen sinful world on full tragic display. The things of this world too often fall short.  Sometimes it is true that the things of this world save the day:  a medical procedure saves a life, a government makes a right decision.    But weeks like this one remind us that in the end there are limits to what people can do.   In the end we shall all walk through the valley of the shadow of death.    It is very discouraging, heart rending.  Who would blame us if grief were to be the spirit of our times?   

Where is there encouragement?

Where is there encouragement for a father who must now raise his two young children without a beloved wife and mother?  Where is encouragement for two young children who thought they mommy was coming home, who didn't get to say goodbye?  Where is encouragement for a wife who too soon has to bid farewell to her best friend and love of her life?   Where is encouragement for families who in the past couple of days received a knock on the door from service-members in full dress come to deliver the news of the death of their sons?  Where is encouragement when our nation's own leaders don't believe we can succeed and we must retreat?  Where is encouragement when we hear the cries of brother and sister Christians for help and we have no power to help them?

We can only look to where there is true hope -- the promises of God in Christ.

The saints who are martyred cry out in heaven, how long Oh God?!   How long will you tolerate this?  How long before justice is done?   And God says be patient to the saints for there are more yet who will be saved.   And then God covers them with a white robe.   For while our eyes are drawn to the sins, tragedies, and evils of the world, it is our own sin and contribution to evil that is the real existential threat to ourselves, an eternal threat.  

And here Jesus does intervene, for He died for our sins and forgives those sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.   He clothes us in a white robe, a robe of perfection, a robe of righteousness, His righteousness given for the saints.  A robe so perfect that it is as if we had never sinned.

Christ intervenes to save us for eternity.   Romans reminds us that all who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death.   Death will come for us, naturally after a long life, too early and tragically to disease, even unjustly to hatred and evil.   But we who are baptized are baptized into His death and buried with Him so that "...as Christ was raised from the dead...we too may walk in newness of life."   He promises us a resurrection like His.

This is where hope is found, where encouragement is encountered, where God is present.  Jesus walks in the trenches among the dying and grants grace for everlasting life.

God calls us to do what we can for one another to prosper life and love wherever we can.   But when it is more than we can do, when the fallen world has taken the upper hand and it looks like we must fail and fall, let us remember...

You are baptized.   "For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His."

The ultimate victory was never about this world.  This world is passing away.   The ultimate victory provided by Christ is a promised new heaven and a new earth.  

From Revelation Ch 21

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.

 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

In Christ's name,

Amen.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Return from False Witness

My brother pastor and I are taking turns preaching for our Lenten midweek services in our respective congregations using the them "Return to Jesus" put out by our denomination's publishing house.  This week he preached on the theme "Return from False Witness" and used as one of his illustrations the story of Richard Jewell.  The timing was rather ironic because I had just began watching the Netflix serious on the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.   I followed the story as it unfolded as the authorities tried to capture Eric Rudolph in the Nantahala National Forest.  This area of the country was just a few hours from where I grew up and I had hiked the Appalachian trail through the northern portion of that forest a few years before.  But as much as this story is about Eric Rudolph, this story is also about a man named Richard Jewell.   

Richard was working as a part-time security guard during the US Olympics and in the course of his rounds spotted a suspicious back-pack and alerted authorities who upon discovering it was indeed a bomb were able to partially evacuate the crowd certainly saving many lives.

But the pressure was on.   The FBI was on the case and the agents investigating were feeling the heat from upper leadership who needed a "win".  This was on the international stage and the FBI at the time was still reeling from a number of very public enforcement events that didn't go well (Ruby Ridge, Waco...).   The mayor of Atlanta was pushing for a suspect to be named quickly to minimize the economic impact of the bombing.  In just a few days Richard Jewell who before had been labeled "a hero" would be labeled "a hero bomber", a particular time of bomber who plants the bombs so he can discover them and be a hero. The only problem -- it wasn't true.  

The FBI would leak it to the press and the press would run with it.  Jewell lost his job, his reputation, the ability to leave his house safely, his privacy.  He had to get rid of his phone.   Later when the truth came out big networks settled, but the local paper fought and fought defending that while it wasn't true that Jewell was the bomber, based on the information at hand it was fair and respectable journalism to report what they reported.  That a man's life was destroyed for some time didn't matter.  

The most potent part of the Netflix series for me was the scene where Jewell is speaking and saying (paraphrased here) "I can understand why people would think someone like me would be a suspect, someone fat, slow, who has made mistakes in his past, who doesn't have girlfriend, who isn't successful at life..."  

Character assassination.   

Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism regarding the eight commandment -- you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on, and of which there would be much to be said. For it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor; and although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that any one should say anything bad about us, but every one would much rather that all the world should speak of him in terms of gold, yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.

Take the following story for example.

 Mat 26:57-68  Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered.  (58)  And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end.  (59)  Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death,  (60)  but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward  (61)  and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’”  (62)  And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”  (63)  But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  (64)  Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  (65)  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.  (66)  What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.”  (67)  Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him,  (68)  saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”

People don't lie about others, don't work to destroy the reputation of others without reason, but the reason is usually not an honorable one.  The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus gone.  He had challenged their exercise of their authority calling them hypocrits.  He disobeyed rules to not associate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.   He had ignored their rules for religious observance including healing on the Sabbath which they defined as "work".  But the big one was Jesus claimed to be divine, to be God's Son and the promised Savior.  How big a deal was this for them?   I really began to understand just how much their blindness lead them to ignore all the true facts about Jesus (His compassion, His love, His miracles, His divine power) when a chaplain rabbi I served with commented that for him the Pharisees, Saducees, and the Sanhedrin were the heroes in the story because Jesus has to be a false Messiah.  Why?  Because if Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior, their theology so carefully crafted by experts would have to be at least in this case, wrong.   The FBI needed a win.   The media had money to make selling newspapers and advertising. 

The experts say.   People in positions of authority carry a lot of weight.  There is a scene in the Netflix series where the FBI is searching Jewell's house and his mother keeps asking him "what did you do"?  Whether Netflix is taking artistic license here that his own mother suspected him, the story as portrayed is true to life.  She says, "The FBI doesn't just do this for no reason."   The FBI, the Press, not the gossip rags but the big names -- CNN, NBC, the New York Post.  People in positions of authority carry great weight when they make a proclamation.  

The truth came out.  The FBI folks that made mistakes didn't really pay any price.   Most of the media groups settled their libel suits but it is just money for them. CNN survives.  NBC survives.  The local paper survived.    Jewell died young at the age of 44 from chronic health conditions not likely helped by this episode, though the police chief of Luthersville gave Jewell his second chance and he was hired as deputy.

Character assassination:  at the heart of the crucifixion of Jesus, in the public eye with the story of Richard Jewell.  But how many stories are out there that don't see the light of day, perhaps your own story.    I know brother pastors who have had their ministries and in some cases their careers destroyed by this kind of behavior.  

The lay deacon, one of the founders of the church, and treasurer who begins tearing down the pastor because he won't practice open communion. (See for more information).  The deacon finds an ally in the Congregation's president, another founder.  Surely these leaders can't be wrong about the pastor.  Ironically six months after the pastor leaves it is discovered that these same men had been putting a portion of the congregational offering into a separate bank account to pay the previous pastor under the table so he wouldn't lose his social security.   The attacks on the pastor had began during the church's leadership board five year planning process, when he encouraged them to do an audit and take a detailed look into the history of the congregation's finances.

The narcissist associate pastor who awes the selection committee and the church's staff on first impressions but soon after arriving goes to war with the senior pastor because he isn't conservative enough.   There are things in worship like children's messages that don't belong.  And the processional cross is in the wrong place.  And you have to do this different and you are doing that wrong.   Finding allies among some of the most conservative elders, a fishing expedition is started against the senior pastor who is trying to draw boundaries and put the breaks onto destructive change.  He is labeled a bully and divisive and encouraged to move along.

The economy is tanking and the church's attendance and offerings are going down.  Stress is up among the leadership and the pastoral staff.  There are concerns about layoffs.  Then the older pastor gets sick and has to take some time off.  His assistant takes the opportunity to start feeding misinformation to the older pastor about the staff and lay leadership who acts on it from a distance thinking he is offering guidance for the good of the church. But the assistant is able then to twist the older pastor's words and actions in such a way that the leaders begin to believe he is not longer fit to serve and the assistant is able to move into the position with a corresponding increase in salary.

The young pastor in a small town who tries to council a young woman (daughter of a prominent church family) regarding the pitfalls of living together outside of marriage who finds his character and performance suddenly under attack by an elder, president, and trustee (all who happen to be in the same family).   Rapidly losing the trust of the members he moves on to another congregation.

If it can happen to Jesus, the Son of God, if it can happen to pastors, if it can happen to an ordinary man doing his job and saving lives like Richard Jewell, it can happen to anyone.  

If people who spend their lives trying to do what is right and stand for what is right -- the Sanhedrin, rabbis and Pharisees and Sadducees, FBI agents and reputable journalists, church leaders and even pastors can fall into the trap of thinking that the attacking of another person's character is justified, anyone can fall into the trap and become the harm that befalls our neighbor.  

If the public can be swayed by the erroneous testimony of experts (Sanhedrin, FBI, the media, pastors, church leaders, _______ fill in the blank), so can we be sucked into the feeding frenzy.

The world, our communities, our churches, our families, or workplaces would all be better if we actually paid attention to the 8th commandment.  People's lives would be better, maybe our own.

Luther's Small Catechism:  (8th Commandment)

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. What does this mean? — Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

So how do we return from this?   When we are the victim we seek solace in the truth, in the light of day, in the loving presence of God.  When we are the perpetrators it is the same.  We face the truth (about ourselves) and acknowledge our sin, own up to it, even apologize, and find forgiveness for harming our neighbor from the love of Christ who died for our sins.





The Big Ten


W
hat does it say that if you say "The Big Ten" the first thing that will come to many people's minds is college football?  Today we are going to look at the original big ten, the ten commandments.  

The Israelite slaves have successfully fled their Egyptian slave masters with the intervention of God Himself and are now camped at the base of Mount Sinai.   And from the mountain comes Moses with the commandments of God inscribed into stone by God Himself.  This is serious business.  

There will be other commandments, ones like do not mix meat and dairy, don't wear garments of two different fabrics and so forth, commandments just for the Israelites so they stand out distinct among the people of the world.  But these ten are different.  They are universal.  And they are non-negotiable.

These are not the ten suggestions, though we tend to treat them as such.  We come up with all sorts of creative reasons to get around them sometimes while claiming to be following the spirit of them.  I can take these things from my employer because they don't pay me enough.  I can move in with my boyfriend or girlfriend because we want to make sure of things before we get married.     We negotiate with them in our minds all the time as if our response to them is some form of compromise, but the truth is it is a one sided dialogue because we just aren't listening.  

We ask ourselves what is the minimal thing we have to do to be in compliance.  We tell ourselves, I have never killed anyone, but Jesus tells us if we have every hated anyone we are just as guilty.  Luther in his small catechism helps us see that the big ten isn't just about the least we should do, but about cultivating a way of thinking that asks what is the excellent kind of life, how can we do the best we can do?

Take his explanation of the fifth commandment,  "Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean? — Answer. We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need in every need and danger of life and body." (Small Catechism)

It sounds great if we really think about it.  Imagine a world where everyone looked out for... well everyone. But the more common message you will hear in our world today is about the oppressiveness of religion and commandments in general.  That commandments don't really originate with God nor reflect any given foundation to our lives but were created by men in power to keep people under their power.  The critical progressive movement sees these as the Israelites fleeing one form of slavery to only fall into a moral slavery.  If that were so, one would think that a commandment against murder would be somewhat counterproductive.  Unjust use of force and threat to livelihood and life has always been a favored tool of the tyrant.

Yes the world would be a much better place if we didn't kill one another, if we didn't lie about one another, if no one stole from each other but actually helped one another have what we need to live, if marriage was honored and families were stable... if people recognized the love of God and relished in it.

For the first thing God said when given the commandments,  "I am your God."

God didn't give these commandments as a burden or a test.  These are family rules.  God sees each human person as His child.  We were created to be in relationship with Him and we were created to be in relationship with one another.  Jesus summed the big ten up with the words Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as ourselves.  There is no escaping that human life is corporate life.  Imagine a world where these were actually followed.  How much better would your life be if your neighbor loved you so much he followed them?  But why should he when we ourselves don't?  And we know as a corporate humanity we don't follow them so we need laws to protect us from each other.

So yes, the big ten, the Law as we call it, was given as a guard.   We use the word "guard" to refer to its role in corporate civic society, that these are to inspire our legal frameworks.  Used to our nation acknowledged the importance of the big ten in the foundation of western legal and ethical systems.  But for some time we have stopped pretending to be inspired by them in our culture.  We can now work seven days a week.  We can terminate the life of human beings without blame if they are unborn.  Marriage is redefined and unnecessary, you can just live together and few think anything about it.  And who really expects the public, the media, the politician to honor the eighth commandment and speak only truth about each other.   We live in a society consumed by greed and coveting.

So we say at least Christians should follow them, and yes these are a guide, a word we use for their role for the Christian.  But we follow so poorly.  And so they also stand before us like a mirror.  When we don't look away, don't shade our eyes with self-justifications for behavior, our heart and spirit stand stark naked in front of the mirror and it isn't always pretty.  We haven't loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We've hedged with God's Law.  We've bent it, tried to negotiate with it, justified our twisting of it, even ignoring of it.  

So what can be done?   St. Paul I think explains it the best for us in Romans chapter three.

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...

Truth be told we are unable to keep the law well enough to be justified in God's sight.  But God is about family.   God is about love.  And so He sent His own Son to rescue us from ourselves.  He is the only person since Adam and Eve who fulfilled the law perfectly, and so He stood in for us, He took our place.  He gave His life to pay for our disobedience that we may be forgiven, restored, and renewed.  We'll never keep the law perfectly, but now with the help of the Holy Spirit we may do better than ever.  We go to heaven because of one reason only -- the grace of God.  He forgives us.  But while we live, He also helps us to be ... well neighborly, to be a bit more like a loving family.  How can we best say thank you to God for saving us for all eternity, by loving those He loves -- our fellow human beings. It can never earn us heaven, but it can make this place a little bit better until He returns.