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  • Mark Pfaller

Disney World & the Grace of God

Updated: Feb 18


How do you relate to the grace of God? I want to share with you a powerful story of an adopted little girl that reveals so much of my own struggle with grace.

The little girl who finally went to Disney World

“I never dreamed that taking a child to Disney World could be so difficult — or that such a trip could teach me so much about God’s outrageous grace. Our middle daughter had been previously adopted by another family. I [Timothy] am sure this couple had the best of intentions, but they never quite integrated the adopted child into their family of biological children. After a couple of rough years, they dissolved the adoption, and we ended up welcoming an eight-year-old girl into our home. For one reason or another, whenever our daughter’s previous family vacationed at Disney World, they took their biological children with them, but they left their adopted daughter with a family friend. Usually — at least in the child’s mind — this happened because she did something wrong that precluded her presence on the trip. And so, by the time we adopted our daughter, she had seen many pictures of Disney World and she had heard about the rides and the characters and the parades. But when it came to passing through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, she had always been the one left on the outside. Once I found out about this history, I made plans to take her to Disney World the next time a speaking engagement took our family to the southeastern United States. I thought I had mastered the Disney World drill. I knew from previous experiences that the prospect of seeing cast members in freakishly oversized mouse and duck costumes somehow turns children into squirming bundles of emotional instability. What I didn’t expect was that the prospect of visiting this dreamworld would produce a stream of downright devilish behavior in our newest daughter. In the month leading up to our trip to the Magic Kingdom, she stole food when a simple request would have gained her a snack. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults that were carefully crafted to hurt her older sister as deeply as possible — and, as the days on the calendar moved closer to the trip, her mutinies multiplied. A couple of days before our family headed to Florida, I pulled our daughter into my lap to talk through her latest escapade. “I know what you’re going to do,” she stated flatly. “You’re not going to take me to Disney World, are you?” The thought hadn’t actually crossed my mind, but her downward spiral suddenly started to make some sense. She knew she couldn’t earn her way into the Magic Kingdom — she had tried and failed that test several times before — so she was living in a way that placed her as far as possible from the most magical place on earth. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed to admit that, in that moment, I was tempted to turn her fear to my own advantage. The easiest response would have been, “If you don’t start behaving better, you’re right, we won’t take you” — but, by God’s grace, I didn’t. Instead, I asked her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?” She nodded, brown eyes wide and tear-rimmed. “Are you part of this family?” She nodded again. “Then you’re going with us. Sure, there may be some consequences to help you remember what’s right and what’s wrong — but you’re part of our family, and we’re not leaving you behind.” I’d like to say that her behaviors grew better after that moment. They didn’t. Her choices pretty much spiraled out of control at every hotel and rest stop all the way to Lake Buena Vista. Still, we headed to Disney World on the day we had promised, and it was a typical Disney day. Overpriced tickets, overpriced meals, and lots of lines, mingled with just enough manufactured magic to consider maybe going again someday. In our hotel room that evening, a very different child emerged. She was exhausted, pensive, and a little weepy at times, but her month-long facade of rebellion had faded. When bedtime rolled around, I prayed with her, held her, and asked, “So how was your first day at Disney World?” She closed her eyes and snuggled down into her stuffed unicorn. After a few moments, she opened her eyes ever so slightly. “Daddy,” she said, “I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.” It wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours. That’s the message of outrageous grace.” (Proof: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones)

Left Behind?

What a powerful story. When I hear that little girl getting left at home while the rest of them go to Disney World, I am so heartbroken for this orphaned little girl. And I can relate to that feeling of…I am not going to get too excited about Disney World because, in my heart of hearts I'm thinking, I'm not going to get to go! In life, I'm going to get left out, I'm going to get left behind…its too good to be true. What are ways in your life you feel like God is going to leave you behind and not take you to Disney World?

Not just a story

I had an incredible encounter with the grace of God several years ago, an encounter that was a turning point in my walk with Christ. It started when I visited the church that my sister and brother in law went to. The pastor preached an incredible expository message from Romans chapter 5. As I listened to this I was thinking “I have never heard preaching like this”. I had heard many anointed messages from God from gifted preachers that I was very helped by, but nothing like this. So I started reading books to learn more about this “reformed” perspective this gospel understanding that they were talking about – and began to see the incredible truth of grace in scripture. I went to ask about this with a mentor of mine named Phil, this man was a very solid, grounded bible teacher that I respected. I packed all of this new learning that I was grappling with into one question: Did we choose God or did God choose us? After a long pause, he answers: God chose us. To which I am jumping out of my chair saying What?!? Why didn’t you tell me this? And he says, well it’s a very divisive issue, so we don’t talk about it too much at church. I said: this is too important, people have to know this incredible truth! This revelation of the grace of God in the Gospel has had incredible ripple effects in my life. I always felt like my salvation was on me – I found God so I had to make sure I didn’t get too far away or he would just leave me behind. What an incredible new place this was in Christ - to know Its not on me - my works, my failures – Im always secure in Christ. There was a song that God used in my life during this time that was so meaningful, even today, it so represented the way God was revealing himself to me in that season. The words of this song say: How do I thank You, O Lord For taking my place on the cross? And how do I thank you, O Lord For all of Your mercy and kindness? For calling me to You, For letting me hear You, For opening my heart to the gospel? It was as if I was experiencing Jesus seeking and saving the lost, but it wasn’t just a story I read, he was seeking and saving me! Who am I that this great and glorious God is mindful of me?

Theology of Grace

That experience I had with this idea of grace being too controversial I have found to be the same with many churches. They are afraid to engage these questions of grace, election, free will…these are hot topics. Controversial topics. But God’s word is unmistakably clear on this grace…even in one of the most frequently quoted passages used to understand our salvation, Ephesians 2: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” -Ephesians 2:4,5,8. When I was in seminary this passage was used to explain the grace of God for us in salvation. The analogy was that what we typically think of ourselves in salvation is that we, in our sin, are like a drowning man in a raging sea. We can’t swim, we are being overwhelmed by the waves, facing certain death. Our only hope is if God throws a life preserver to just the right place where I can extend my hand to reach it and be saved. God must intervene, and I must take action. But that is not what Ephesians 2 says…”we were DEAD in our trespasses”…we were not just struggling and drowning, we were stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. But God by his grace breathed the breath of life in us that we could know him. If you are sitting here today as a Christian, it is because you are the beloved of God, and he has set his grace on you, that you might turn to him.

As a Church Plant

This is important for us as a church. Because if we adopt this “free will” kind of attitude, you can’t escape the fact that its all on you. I choose Christ, I have to keep choosing Christ, I have to keep doing the right things or else I’m going to lose my salvation. You’re going to get kicked out of the family, your going to get left behind on the trip to Disney world. And what fruit does this produce? You’ve got to do your devotional, you’ve got to read your bible, or else…all that guilt born out of all of it being on my shoulders. Think about the pressure we feel culturally of working to earn our salvation. The American dream, the great American work ethic, we are told working hard is the way to success. We like advice like that of Billionaire Jack Ma who endorses a “996” work week: 9am to 9pm 6 days a week. Even the new GIG economy, where we work side-gigs to make extra income, are based on us working 2 or 3 jobs to succeed in the “American dream”. Hear me say there is biblical merit to we work hard and provide for ourselves and our family, but I want us to connect the dots here is if we come to Christianity thinking to be acceptable I have to get to work, I will work on my relationship with God just like I work on the American dream. That is where this understanding of Grace is so counter-cultural, a powerful antidote to this stress and guilt and I don’t measure up to have that security of God’s grace as the bedrock of who I am, my place in the family of God. When we understand grace, God’s love, we have the ability to rest as children of God, not because of the merits of my hard work or my decision or my virtue, but on the grace of God that saves us.

* This post is the beginning of the Church Planting South Dawson February Newsletter Follow the link for the complete February update.

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© 2019 Pastor Mark Pfaller

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Mark Pfaller