On Grace — And, Then, Not So Much

Frankly, many people find Jesus’ position on the priority of grace obnoxious and unacceptable. Crucial, then, is the correct answer to the question of whether or not Jesus had divine authority. If he did, then a life of grace cannot be a debatable subject or a negotiable option for the people of God. — C. Welton Gaddy, Where Do You Go to Give Up?

Many years before returning to the church, I bought a copy of Aretha Franklin’s double gospel album, Amazing Grace. Yes, album. They still sold vinyl records at the time and this was one with a cover that opened like a book and had two separate albums in it. I don’t know what prompted me to buy it, except that I love Aretha Franklin. Still, I was the one who hated religion and all things religiosy. Even so, I even went so far as to record the album onto cassette tapes in order to listen to them in my car. If you’ve never heard the album, Aretha sings a 10-minute-plus version of Amazing Grace that’s, well, amazing. The album annoyed me greatly. I mean I love Aretha and all, but these were hymns! The songs included Mary, Don’t You Weep; You’ll Never Walk Alone; What a Friend We Have in Jesus; among others. Never walk alone? I suppose Aretha didn’t know my story. But she sure can belt ’em out, I’ll give her that.

As I listened to Amazing Grace that first time, I found myself in tears. This was even more annoying. I mean, why should I cry hearing this song? I walked away from all that eons ago. But, the way Aretha sang it, the song sounded joyful. In fact, all the songs sounded joyful — even the somber ones, like it might be possible that people could enjoy being at church. What I remembered about hymns sung in church was that they reminded me of a funeral dirge. That impression, however, may have been because the songs reminded me of a type of death I’d experienced at the end of my association with them and the church. They reminded me of a time I was trying very hard to forget.

Still, I listened. I listened to that album for years. I listened drunk and I listened sober. Well, probably more drunk than sober, but the songs followed me into sobriety. And somehow, the songs became my friends. They weren’t friends I thought I wanted, mind you, but there they were. Never underestimate the power of music to sustain the soul, even when you think you want nothing to do with it. The tears were for something I’d lost, though I’m not sure I realized it at the time. Any time a thought slipped through on the importance of faith to me, my protector was there to remind me where all that had gotten me. That protector was the voice of reason, I thought. Don’t go there, Ben. There’s nothing but heartache in it for you. Remember, those people think you’re fatally flawed and God agrees with them. And so I’d cry a little harder. It was a pipe dream, after all, this thing called grace.

Grace is a funny thing. Webster defines it as:

a : unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification

b : a virtue coming from God

c : a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace

Unmerited. I think that’s the most important word in these definitions.

Un: not
Merit: deserving

Hence, not deserving. I can’t beg, borrow, or steal it. It is a gift, always. I can refuse it but it’s still there as a gift from God. The grace of God had followed me to and through some pretty awful situations. I think I always knew that, but my anger told me to ignore it. And I ignored it pretty well for a very long time.

So that’s grace — undeserving. But what does a community of grace mean to you? I encourage you to pick up a copy of C. Welton Gaddy’s Where Do You Go to Give Up?: Building a Community of Grace and read it. If you’re tempted to believe you’re a part of a community of grace, I urge you to see just how well you stack up. Most places that call themselves communities of grace do an abysmal job of it – or are nothing even remotely grace-filled. It’s possible, however, to find them.

I stumbled upon a community of grace a few years ago. It was a place filled with saints. Don’t get me wrong. I know these people aren’t saints every minute of the week. But they were saints just enough of the time to welcome back a frightened, fifty-six-year-old kid – a kid dragging so much baggage behind him, it was an incredible effort to get through the door. I’d found a community that understands that God doesn’t close the door on anyone. Let me say that again. God doesn’t close the door on anyone – ever. It wouldn’t be grace, then, would it? These people understood that the grace comes from God. All they did was share a little of it with me until I could accept it for myself and then, perhaps, to share a little back.

I don’t think it’s too difficult to understand the power of grace or the harm that can be done by withholding it. Of course, we first have to understand what it really means. When we’re tempted to say, “I think it’s time to give up on him,” or “She’s beyond redemption,” we’ve done the opposite of what Jesus called us to do — to be. Too often we have difficulty with the concept of grace. Too many churches promote the idea that there’s a limit to grace and that it must be that way. In his book, Gaddy says,

“The very idea of falling from grace fails to stand up to severe questioning. The omnipresent God is ever-present grace. Persons can no more get away from God’s grace than they can escape God’s presence. The Psalmist contemplated this truth beneficially, confessing to God, ‘Thou are there!’ whether speculating on life in heaven or Sheol, on land or sea, in darkness or in light (Ps 139:7-12). Retaining the imagery of the myth, if a person falls from grace, he falls into grace.”

“If a person falls from grace, he falls into grace.” What a wonderful way of saying, once again, that grace is a gift from God. I may consider myself to have fallen from grace, but God is always there, begging to differ.

Gaddy says, “Any suggestion that a person may be beyond grace and redemption reveals an inadequate comprehension of the nature of God. . . . To suspect God’s inability to salvage an individual is to contemplate a god who is way too small, not the God revealed in the Bible and fleshed-out in Jesus.”

We’re all in need of grace at one time or another in our lives. Some of us simply find ourselves in need of grace a little more often. But since grace is there for the asking at any given time, it behooves us to try to share grace with others. As such, the “priesthood of all believers” has to take on a meaning beyond simply “religious talk.” To take up the cross has to mean more than showing up in church on a regular basis. We are called to be priests to one another. The day I showed up in church three years ago, I was in desperate need of grace. The priesthood of all believers (I looked it up on the church’s website) simply sounded like Christian-speak for, “We’ll let you know when we think you’re good enough to be a part of us. We are, after all, God’s gatekeepers here on earth. We can’t let just anyone into the club. God doesn’t sit still for sinners dragging their evil in behind them. And, besides, we have a reputation to uphold!” What I found, instead, were ordinary people who were capable of extraordinary things. Apparently, they’d looked up the word grace and had an understanding of that “unmerited” part of it. In some amazingly simple ways, they became priests to me as they listened and held me – literally and figuratively. Their actions told me that God had been waiting for me and was happy to have me home.

Home. That’s another rough word for some of us. While we may take home with us wherever we go, many of us drag a broken home along with us through life, unwilling or unable to allow the brokenness to be healed. That’s where grace needs to step in.

Episcopal priest and author, Robert Farrar Capon, says, “Christianity starts by telling you that you have no place left to go because you’re already home free; and no favor to earn because God sees you in his beloved Son and thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. All you have to do is explore the crazy Mystery of your acceptance.”

Does that sound like the version of Christianity you were/are taught? It’s likely not. That, however, is the message I received when I returned to church. Can it be had in any church? Well, yes, though you may have to stop listening to what’s actually being said and simply understand for yourself the real message of Jesus. Churches, sadly, aren’t the natural repositories of grace, though they certainly can be. Churches are often the exact opposite of grace, filled with requirements, judgment, and condemnation. The message, too often, is “get good or God will get even.” Sound familiar? So much for grace. But the “get even” part of that is a human trait, not one of God’s.

Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still.” Is that an invitation to go on sinning because your redemption is in the grace of God anyway? Apparently not. The original meaning of the word “sin” was “missing the mark.” It seems to me to be a much more useful way of looking at sin than confining it to some immorality or other as defined by some religious group. It acknowledges that all of us sin every day – we all miss the mark in one way or another.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Taken as the premiss, pecca fortiter [sin boldly] acquires the character of an ethical principle, a principle of grace to which the principle of pecca fortiter must correspond. That means the justification of sin, and it turns Luther’s formula into its very opposite. For Luther “sin boldly” could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he can never become sinless, who in his fear of sin despairs of the grace of God. As Luther saw it, “sin boldly” did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgment of his disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners. Yet that grace seeks us and justifies us, sinners though we are.”

Now, that’s a mouthful. But it seems too often religious people tend to forget that they themselves are sinners, regardless of how many times they’ve been dunked, sprinkled, or left out in the rain. A constant preoccupation with the morality of every movement and action of life leaves many all too ready to point the finger at others. Why, after all, should those people have all the fun while I’m stuck here miserable, but supposedly faithful to God’s principles? That just leaves a lot of sad, angry people in the world who, rather than rejoice in the grace of God, try to withhold it from those they deem unworthy. I’ve always been under the impression that judgment was the providence of God.

So, “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still,” appears to mean we should acknowledge the fact that we will daily miss the mark – and then move on. We’re human. I know in my own life, an admonition to “get good or God will get even” merely made me push away harder still, all the while still feeling guilty. But, what good is feeling guilty with no desire to change? What does it accomplish? On the other hand, grace says you’re home already. It’s an invitation to get up the next day and try to do a little better job of it.

Alcoholics Anonymous, in its best moments, is a place of grace. People who are no longer welcome elsewhere show up to find a group of people willing to accept them and understand what it means to live in the vicious cycle of addiction. At its worst, however, you find people who have forgotten the grace extended them when they first arrived. In its place has come judgment and self-righteousness. Some of the worst “out there” now seem to believe themselves some of the best “in here”. The “if I can do it, anyone can do it” attitude replaces grace with a judgment that others are simply not trying hard enough. This is an attitude also found in too many churches. Thankfully, the best moments still exist in abundance. The grace extended me when I first arrived felt very much like the grace I later experienced when I returned to church – only I was a little more willing to accept it by then. Grace is about understanding that we all miss the mark is serious ways throughout our lives. Grace, though, says you’re welcome here, warts and all. Grace says there’s a way out – a way up. And it doesn’t place a timetable on progress.

To be certain, a community of grace risks being used — at the very least a feeling of being used. That’s whether it’s AA, a church, a shelter for battered women, a food bank. It’s the nature of grace, though, to accept the risk because to do otherwise would be to deny grace and its power for transformation. Any limitation on grace simply means it is no longer grace. I thank God I wasn’t given a set number of times I could fail before I was summarily dismissed as irredeemable. I’m certainly not as pure as snow, as the hymn says, but I’m awake and aware that I will never be. That’s not a fatalistic acceptance of failure, but allows for a resolution to be a little different today, a little better me.

And when I fail at being that better me? Well, that, after all, is what the grace of God is all about.

May the grace of God go with you. And may you share a little of that grace today with others around you.

4 thoughts on “On Grace — And, Then, Not So Much

  1. Ben, your comments about Aretha Franklin, and the songs on the album, reminded me that your mom told me once (after many problems came in her life) that is was usually the music, the songs, that ‘got to her’ the most. I’m sure that is true for many people. Your mom was so proud of the person you were becoming.

    • Thank you, Ruth. It meant a lot to me that I had a little time to spend with mother after things had begun to turn around. I guess it’s really never too late to wake up and smell the grace that’s surrounded you for a lifetime. Shortly before she died, I sat at the piano and played hymns for her — very poorly, I might add. Know what? I don’t think she heard any of the mistakes in my playing. That, in a nutshell, was my mother, and one more definition of grace.

  2. I read once, in some book, about a man going into a diner in the deep south and ordering breakfast. When it arrived–with a side of grits–he told the waitress that he hadn’t asked for grits. Hand on her hip, she smacked her gum and replied, “Honey, you don’t have to ask for grits. They just come.”

    We don’t have to ask for grace, Honey. It just comes.

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