Mighty Morphing Message! A review of ‘The Grace Morph’ by Tim Estes.

I’m a little over halfway through my copy of Pastor Tim Estes’s inaugural book The Grace Morph, and I find every page compellingly helpful and easy to read. Although some readers may cringe at the overabundance of exclamation points, I believe this speaks to the passion with which Tim writes about a subject he is intimately acquainted with -the transformative power of God’s grace. In the pages of The Grace Morph, Tim writes of his personal journey, and that of leading his family and the church he pastors, from a life governed by legalistic and controlling doctrines to a life that is faithfully guided by the understanding that it isn’t our works that lead to salvation, but rather it is God’s work on our behalf that saves us. Pastor Tim writes beautifully; “Grace refuses to condemn that which the Bible will not condemn. Grace loves when others will not. It reaches to the outermost limits and never quits loving. Grace is the first to forgive and forget and the first to forgive on the 490th (7×70) commission of the same sin on the same day!” It is this passion for the proclamation of God’s grace that comes through loud and clear on every page of The Grace Morph.

My first memories of Tim Estes were on a hot June afternoon in Redfield, Arkansas, on the State campgrounds of the United Pentecostal Church. I was in the back of an old church van packed with other teenagers as we pulled up on the campground to begin our week of youth camp which ran the gamut from denominational indoctrination, ecstatic emotional experiences, and sweaty afternoons filled with softball, cold sugary drinks, interrupted only by occasional malaise and disappointing intermittent pursuits of the opposite sex. But Tim Estes was an anomaly amidst so many who were only there on the campground to have fun and my first impression of him, all those years ago, was that he was a sincere believer and incredibly hard worker.

From the back of the hot church van, I watched Tim repeatedly back up the truck he was driving loaded with limbs and branches and quickly unload them in the hot summer sun. He moved at a pace that I had only seen modeled before by my father. Tim was closer to my age than to my dad’s, but he moved with the enthusiasm of my father, as someone who enjoyed working hard. It was a trait that I admired in my dad, and now admire in Tim. Most likely, Tim was clearing brush on the old campground to make room for expansions that would come in future years to that place in central Arkansas that was pivotal, in both good and bad ways, in the lives of so many.

Through those formative years for me, Tim Estes became someone that admired for far more than just his work ethic. Tim was a leader in our Pentecostal organization, and someone that I wanted to know and, in some respects, emulate. I sat in many services that Tim, as our State Youth director led, and in so many services where he faithfully preached and taught the Bible. I admired the quiet strength with which Tim carried himself.  I’ve come to realize with every passing year of my life, that this is the only kind of strength that is useful in the world. Tim Estes seemed to understand this from an early age. For me it has taken a little longer to understand that lasting influence is rarely, if ever, loud and insistent on itself. This unassuming strength and wisdom is a hallmark of Tim’s leadership and writing, and is imbued in every word written in The Grace Morph.

On several occasions as we traveled parallel paths that would lead us away from The United Pentecostal Church, Tim was kind enough to speak to me at the General Conference of our fellowship, always taking time to ask my name, and once learning that I was an evangelist, he was gracious and generous with opening his church to my ministry. Tim powerfully writes of the moments that challenged his existing belief systems and they certainly resonate with me, as I was having many of the same feelings and thoughts, even at times when I was privileged to preach in the pulpit of New Life Church in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Tim also showed a great deal of kindness to me and my family when I resigned from the pastorate in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 2016. He welcomed us into his church with open arms and made us feel at home. At the time, I didn’t have the capacity to express all that I was feeling and still don’t know what to do with most of it, but Pastor Tim was kind and called me “a hero.” I’ll always be grateful for his generosity of spirit in those difficult moments. You will find that generosity of spirit that I experienced in the pages of The Grace Morph.

Tim writes, “To hold a narrow view of life and scripture, and then refuse to seek greater knowledge, is to bind oneself to limited aspirations and living.” Tim recounts in vivid detail, how he found the courage to transition the church he led out of The United Pentecostal Church, and beyond its false, limiting, and often harmful doctrines that seek to regulate outward behavior at the expense of inward renewal. By painting a picture of every step of the process of transitioning from one theological position to another, and forging a path that others can follow, Pastor Tim performs a service for church leaders and individuals who are also seeking to flee the false doctrines of controlling religion.

Pastor Tim Estes through his life, ministry, and now writing, continues to influence me in ways that are helpful, although in some respects, specifically American politics, Pastor Tim and I have recently had sharp disagreements. I would simply ask that Pastor Tim apply the same wise principles of which he writes to carefully examining his continued allegiance to the 45th President of the United States. I believe that wisdom should guide us in every arena, especially when those who are leaders in that arena have consistently shown themselves to be less than truthful to violent and divisive ends. But I suspect for some readers, given the current political and cultural landscape of the United States, understanding this about Tim will not be a determent but a value added benefit.

Politics aside, I commend Pastor Tim’s work in The Grace Morph to everyone, but especially those of us who are still grappling with the long-term traumatic impacts of well-intentioned churches that do more harm than good by perpetuating controlling philosophies that fall short of the liberating gospel of Christ. Tim makes it clear in the opening pages of The Grace Morph that “This book is my humble appeal for a balanced life, one that has the right amount of discipline and personal infrastructure as designed by our Creator, but not so much that people are stifled from living and expressing their authentic, God-given lives.” Certainly, Pastor Tim and I will never agree on everything, but I am grateful for the story he shares and believe that many who have shared our journey or who are embarking on their own will find this book beneficial.

A cursory look at what awaits me in the second half of the book promises to be even more specific as Pastor Tim addresses issues that were central to the prohibitions in The United Pentecostal Church, including hair and dress styles, the wearing of jewelry, cosmetics, participation in competitive sports and more. In many respects, this book may have been more easily digestible if it would have been released in two volumes, but that being said, I do hope that there are more books to come from the pen of Tim Estes. I find Tim’s vulnerability in the pages of The Grace Morph, so far, helpful and inspiring, but I suspect that there is even more to be learned from the experiences of Tim Estes. Lessons that I look forward to learning. Pastor Tim powerfully writes of what many people who transition out of The United Pentecostal Church and other controlling religious groups feel.

“I have to admit to feeling intense anger, anger that was unhealthy and grew to the point it almost destroyed me. Sometimes people feel as though they have been cheated out of the expression of their individuality, of having fun in their teen years, or missing opportunities of playing sports, of having certain friends and having missed experiences they could have had otherwise. Perhaps worst of all is looking back at one’s ineffectiveness, in terms of really impacting their community for Christ…”

This powerfully resonated with me as I am still coming to terms with what I experienced and didn’t experience as someone who grew up in The United Pentecostal Church. It wasn’t all bad, nothing is ever all just one way or the other but making sense of the truncated life is difficult to put into context. Further, navigating relationships now that I’m no longer a part of that group or even leading a church of any kind magnifies the tensions that already exist surrounding my identity and purpose. In the pages of The Grace Morph, I’m reading about the experiences of a man who understands what this feels like, and for this I’m thankful.

It appears that Tim Estes is still clearing brush. Only now, with the release of his book The Grace Morph, he is clearing the weeds and thistles that would choke out the liberating message of the gospel of grace. I still find the enthusiasm with which Tim Estes works inspiring.

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