What's So Amazing About Grace?
October 14, 2018
Some years ago, there was a British conference on comparative religions. Experts from around the world debated whether any beliefs were unique to the Christian faith. They began to eliminate possibilities: The incarnation? No… God in human form? No…. Resurrection? No. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s going on,” he asked. They explained the question—what, if anything, is Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. “That’s easy,” he said. It’s grace.”
My mission group is reading Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? I want to share from this book and then pose some questions about our response to God’s grace.
The notion of God’s love, coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against all of our instincts. But in Christianity, God’s love is unconditional. Perhaps aware of our in-built resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it a lot: the sun shines on people both good and bad; birds gather seeds for free without plowing or harvesting; unattended wildflowers flourish. Jesus saw grace everywhere. He didn’t analyze it. He didn’t define it. He almost never used the word. But he conveyed grace through stories – what we know as parable.
The parables in the New Testament are quite familiar. So, let me share a few more modern day parables – ones that Yancey shares in his book about Grace:
A businessman in Los Angeles decides to cash and book some adventure travel. He gets the idea of touring the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Most of the ancient wonders, he finds, have left no trace, but there is work being done to restore the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He lines up a charter plane, a bus, accommodations and a guide who promises to let tourists work along-side the professional archeologists. To finance his dream, the businessman arranges a million-dollar loan from a venture capitalist, calculating that after the fourth trip he can cover expenses and start paying back the loan. However, he does not calculate that two weeks before his first trip. Saddam Hussein will invade Kuwait and the State Department will ban all travel to Iraq, where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are located. He agonizes for three weeks over how to tell the venture capitalist that he has lost the investment. He simply cannot find a way to raise the money. Finally, he goes in to tell the investor what has happened. The venture capitalist holds up a hand to interrupt him. “Wait. What nonsense are you talking about? Repayment?” He laughs. “Don’t be silly. I am a speculator. I win some. I lose some. I knew your plan was a risk. It was a good idea, though, and it’s hardly your fault that war broke out. Just forget it.” He then took the contract and tour it up.
The Boston Globe reported this story: Accompanied by her fiancé’, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal for their wedding dinner. They both had expensive tastes, and the bill came to $13,000. They left half of the amount for a down payment. The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. Let’s think about this a little longer.” Once the fiancée got over her anger, she went back to the hotel to cancel the dinner. The Events Manager was very understanding, but said she would only the entitled to a $1,300 refund. She could either forfeit the rest of the down payment or go ahead with the banquet. It seemed crazy, but the more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not as a banquet, but as a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had gotten back on her feet, got a good job and set aside a sizable next egg. So, it was that in June of 1997, men and women from homeless shelters and back alleys were all invited to attend a big party at the Hyatt in downtown Boston —bag ladies, vagrants and addicts drank champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake and danced to a big band melodies late into the night.
A young girl grows up on a farm near Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, fairly conservative, overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times and she seethes inside. One night she runs away. She goes to Detroit and the second day there meets a man who drives a big car. He buys her lunch and finds her a place to stay. He also gives her some pills that make her feel better than she has felt in a long time. The good life continues for over a year. Since she is underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service when she wants it. After a year, the first signs of illness appear, and the boss turns mean. She is no longer attractive and is unable to earn enough money to support her habit. Finally, she begins to think about home. “God, why did I leave,” she says to herself. “My dog back home eats better than I do.” She calls home – three times – but only get the answering machine. Finally, she leaves a message: “Mom,
Dad, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.” During the seven-hour bus trip she practices what she might say to her parents. When the bus reaches Traverse City, she walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. There in the terminal stands a group of forty brothers, sisters, great aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmothers, a great grandmother and Mom and Dad. She goes up to her Dad and begins her memorized speech, but he interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet is waiting for you at home.”
What is it about these stories? I imagine we would have been impressed if the venture capitalist had said something like, “I understand the predicament you are in. I will let you pay me $4000 a month for the next 20 years and then we will call it even. That would have been incredibly generous. Or, we would have been impressed if the bride-to-be had taken the $1,300 and donated it to the shelter where she once used to stay. Very generous. Or, if the Dad had met the bus alone and talked with his daughter alone before going home to the family, just to make sure she was totally sorry for the way she had behaved. But no, in each story, the response was over the top.
We are so accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole.
Here is the main point of my teaching. If you look at the ethics of the individual characters in these stories, reflective of Jesus’ parables it is clear that Jesus did not give us the parables to teach us how to live. Really, JESUS DID NOT GIVE US THE PARABLE TO TEACH US HOW TO LIVE? What then is the point of the parables? Jesus gave these stories to correct our notion about who God is, and how God love us. Writers in the Old Testament got it wrong. God is not judging our every move. Jesus came to show us just how much God loves us as we are.
Henri Nouwen writes:
God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.
So, now what do we do with this grace?
First, we must do what it takes to receive this grace. Receive forgiveness. But as I thought about this, I have come to believe, so far, that grace is not just forgiveness, it is abundant forgiveness – it is over the top forgiveness. God loves me – God loves you -- no matter what. I belong. I am cherished. And, because we live in that grace-filled place, we are able to share grace; we are able to forgive without a catch. So, all that therapy and mission group sharing is critical. Do what it takes to receive this grace. God is waiting for you.
The next question is: How can Christians, how can 8th Day, dispense grace in a society that seems to be veering away from God? One writer says: The world can do anything the church can do except one thing: it cannot show grace. Well, the church is not doing a very good job of dispensing grace. We are getting swept away by the politics of polarization, shouting across picket lines at the “enemy” on the other side. We stay in a constant state of anger about those we disagree with. In fact, we are contemptuous of them. It is important to remember, that Jesus and Paul wrote about love. How does a grace-full Christian look? Jesus does not focus primarily on ethics or rules, but rather involves a new way of seeing. A grace-filled Christian is one who looks at the world through “grace-tinted lenses” --- seeing myself and my neighbor as sinners, loved by God. It seems to me that becoming a grace-filled Christian and a grace-filled church is our first calling.
We have examples we can learn from: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day, almost any AA meeting, Chuck Colson’s conversion and launching of Prison Fellowship, and our own Church of the Saviour missions started with so little money but a deep love and compassion for our neighbors.
The message of grace has struck a chord in me because we are living in such dark days. The authors of the book The Fourth Turning say we are in a time of great peril, much like the crises our country, and world, faced in the 1930s. They document why this is and say it will last until about 2030 – another 12 years. (They wrote the book 22 years ago in 1996.) As we pray about what 8th Day’s vision is for the coming years, I would like to suggest that our vision during this time of crises should focused on grace – for one another and those we come in contact with. This desire to be grace-filled is going to influence my work at The Potter’s House. That means we will celebrate acts of compassion, forgiveness and generosity. We will encourage grace among our staff and our customers and supporters. We will welcome those who are marginalized and those we don’t agree with. And we will show grace when we fall short. I invite you to think about you can truly receive God’s abundant grace and live a grace-filled life.