Posts Tagged ‘Philip Yancey’

71q989m262LTitle: Vanishing Grace

Author: Philip Yancey

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 298

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of Vanishing Grace via BookLook Bloggers program. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked only to be honest and fair in my review which I was. Thanks for stopping by and reading.]

I think the first Philip Yancey book I read was The Jesus I Never Knew and when I read it I was simply blown away. Along the way, I have read just about everything Yancey has published in book form and even used one or two of his video series' in Bible studies.

Yancey's work has been a blessing to me not only because of the work he himself has done but because of the work he has introduced to me through his writing. He introduced me to Annie Dillard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Walker Percy. He introduced me to GK Chesterton and Thomas Merton and Dr Paul Brand. There have been others, yes, and Philip Yancey has had a way of making these authors and artists seem like old friends–like I am sitting in my living room with a fireplace and a glass of wine enjoying their company and conversation.

Vanishing Grace follows Yancey's standard model and if I hadn't read What's So Amazing About Grace many years ago this book might have impressed me more. The problem, as I see it, is that there's not really all that much about it that is new. That's not to say the book is merely a mirror of the former book as much as it is to say that I have read enough of Yancey's work to be able to say that I've been there, and I've done that. I've read his criticisms of the church, he doubts about faith, and his enthusiasm for artists and activists. New packaging; same story.

Yancey explores things in the book that at some level irritate him about the church. And the truth is, if all I ever read about the church was Yancey's experiences as a young man growing up in a southern Fundamentalist kind of congregation, I suppose I would hate church too (not that Yancey hates the church, but that he struggles mightily against some of the more challenging aspects of it). I have my issues with the church: after serving a church for nearly ten years and buying a house with their blessing, I was asked to resign. That was five or so years ago and I have largely let go of it because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. There's a sense in which I wonder if Yancey has ever let go of those negative experiences of his youth or if they continue to color the way he sees things in the church. After reading so many of Yancey's books, I'm kind of bored reading about how terrible the church was when he grew up in the south.

The book does what Yancey does: he explores the church, the world, and himself. Maybe not always in that order, but always with a keen attention to detail. As per usual, Yancey is a very well read individual–now he even begins to explore internet resources like blogs. Nevertheless, he always comes back to his favorites: O'Connor, Volf, Weil, and others. I liked that he also interacted, at some level, with some newer folks: Keller, Collins, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson. He touches base with all the big name evolutionists we would expect: Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens, and Gould. And of course he interacts with the Bible and some of the ancient commentators on the Bible.

I am certain that a lot of people in the world have a lot of problems with the church–Yancey not least among them. Throughout the book he identifies and labels the church's faults. He then goes on to highlight several ways, in each category he explores, how the church–or at least people who are somewhat loosely affiliated with the church–is going out of its way to buck the trend of gracelessness so evident in churches like the one in which Yancey grew up. I think it is difficult to come face to face with our sin and Yancey certainly pulls no punches when it comes to brutal honesty about the failures and faults of the church. But if, as Yancey rightly notes, "Jesus turned over the mission to his followers" (98; one of only 3 or 4 places I underlined in the book), the what are we to expect? He goes on to note that he struggles with the 'ascension' of Jesus (99) because it was the 'ascension that turned loosed that company of motley pilgrims known collectively as the church.'

And here I admit that Yancey's consternation is somewhat flummoxing to me. If Jesus set us (the church) free, then what are we to expect but that the church, made up of humans–albeit redeemed humans!–is going to foul things up every now and again? The ascension isn't about Jesus floating up to heaven on a cloud. It is kings who ascend to a throne and Jesus is no different. Jesus, ascended to the right hand of God, now rules from the right hand of God, seated. There's more. In the Revelation, Jesus is described as one who 'walks among the lampstands' (where the lampstands represent the church). Jesus ascended. Jesus among the lampstands. It's not so much that Jesus has set us free–that is, to run around without any help or guidance or direction or oversight or discipline. At this point Yancey kind of loses me because I'm not sure if he a) doesn't understand what ascension means or b) chooses to ignore what it really means. There is no Christianity without the church.

Yancey remains one of the finest journalists and storytellers the world knows and for this I appreciate his work. I think Yancey would tell his readers that the church has a lot to offer and that, ultimately, the church is a good thing. But I think he might also tell people to proceed with caution. I think he might also tell his readers that even though the church is a good thing perhaps working as a church outside of the church is a better thing. His distrust of the church is somewhat apparent, but his praise of those who do Jesus things while belonging to the church only tangentially is also quite apparent. Take that for what it's worth. At the end of the day, Yancey has written a book that even for my criticisms was hard to put down. I was always awaiting the next anecdote and the next quote and every now and again he perks up with childlike wonder at the changes that Jesus brought into a person's life. This is when Yancey is at his best.

I'll end with a quote from Chesterton that Yancey includes in his book that to my mind is one of the best things he wrote: "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who new the way out of the grave" (158). Although, to be sure, I think the renewal he speaks of must include words and deeds. I think the words need to be more full of grace and less of hate and I think the deeds need to be, well, more.

4/5 Stars

PS-I am still not a huge fan of the way Yancey writes his notes. I'd prefer endnotes with numbers, but that's a small thing.

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Friends,

A new feature I will try to practice for a while. I have decided that I will follow the Lectionary readings for a while in 2009 for my preaching schedule. As I study and prepare each week, I will post my notes here at the blog for anyone to partake of. It will vary from week to week, but it will always have good resources.

This week’s readings are: Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36-49. My notes are from Luke 24:36-49. You can access all 10 pages of notes from my box.net account.

Notes on Luke 24:36-49: Resurrection Changes Everything

I hope the notes help. Some of them are unfinished thoughts. Others are lengthy quotations. All of them are trying to get at the heart of what happened in the room when Jesus appeared, what it meant, and what it means.

jerry

Friends, here is the audio for the manuscript printed below (in the previous post). This is a sermon about God’s grace as expressed in the person of David, king of Israel. It is a sermon about the unmerited kindness that David demonstrated towards Mephibosheth, the grandson of David’s enemy, Saul. It is a picture of David adopting Mephibosheth into his family and seating him at the king’s table. Thanks for stopping by. jerry

You can download here: Filling a Cup from a Waterfall, 2 Samuel 9:1-21

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Soli Deo Gloria!

Like Filling a Cup from a Waterfall
2 Samuel 9:1-12

Introduction

David asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”

Now there was a servant of Saul’s household named Ziba. They called him to appear before David, and the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?”
“Your servant,” he replied.

The king asked, “Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?”

Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in both feet.”

“Where is he?” the king asked.

Ziba answered, “He is at the house of Makir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.”
So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel.

When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. David said, “Mephibosheth!”

“Your servant,” he replied.

“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”
Mephibosheth bowed down and said, “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?”

Then the king summoned Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master’s grandson may be provided for. And Mephibosheth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table.” (Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.)

Then Ziba said to the king, “Your servant will do whatever my lord the king commands his servant to do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table like one of the king’s sons.

Mephibosheth had a young son named Mica, and all the members of Ziba’s household were servants of Mephibosheth. And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table, and he was crippled in both feet.
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Two things absolutely basic to the Christian life are, unfortunately, counter to most things North American, which makes this intersection a confused place, clogged with accidents, snarled traffic, and short tempers. To begin with, the Christian life is not about us; it is about God. Christian spirituality is not a life-project for becoming a better person, it is not about developing a so-called ‘deeper life.’ We are in on it, to be sure. But we are not the subject. Nor are we the action. We get included by means of a few prepositions: God with us (Matthew 1:23), Christ in me (Galatians 2:20), God for us (Romans 8:31). With…in…for…: powerful, connecting, relation-forming words, but none of them making us either subject or predicate. We are the tag-end of a prepositional phrase.

The great weakness of North American spirituality is that it is all about us: fulfilling our potential, getting in on the blessings of God, expanding our influence, finding our gifts, getting a handle on principles by which we can get an edge over the competition. And the more there is of us, the less there is of God. -Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 335

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Our story for today actually begins in chapter 4 of 2 Samuel. We read in verse 4 of that chapter that Jonathan son of Saul who had been king of Israel had also had a son who was lame in both feet. “He was five years old when the new about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became crippled. His name was Mephibosheth.”

So this young man of five who had once know the pleasure and presence of dwelling in the kings’ court, with his father, Jonathan, heir to the throne, was now alone in the world. He was on his own. His father dead. His mother evidently dead. His grandfather dead. He was no longer the prince of Israel, but now just a crippled in the feet commoner.

But it was worse in that he was crippled. There was no, back then, any Society of/for the Handicapped, no Wheelchairs for America or anything of the sort. Never again would he enjoy working feet. Never again would his life be the same. He would be, forever, dependent upon everyone around him. He would be reduced from royalty to stock. He would be a societal outcast, barred from the presence of the king and reduced to an insignificant place in the temple worship.

By the standards of those days, he would be lucky to escape with his life.

But then one day something changed. In the midst of all the changes: David the New King, the Great military leader, God’s great promise to David in chapter 7, the ark returning to Jerusalem, David taking Jerusalem-in the midst of all this-David asks, “Is there anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”

When it is found out that there was someone left, David again asked, “Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s Kindness?”  And in the end it was this young man named Mephibosheth. He comes before the King to be questioned.
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I’d like to make a couple of points just now. First, I find it most interesting that David sought out Mephibosheth and not the other way around. It was David who took it upon himself to seek out this crippled man and shower him with God’s Kindness. The crippled and destitute Mephibosheth had done nothing to earn this from the king, he had done nothing to deserve such unbelievable treatment at the hands of the one who was sitting on the throne that he himself would have inherited one day.

And yet that is what happened. Typically, in those ancient of days, when someone new ascended to the throne, all the members of the previous regime were put to death-Solomon follows this course when he becomes king. I don’t think David here is merely making political alliances to secure his throne. This is a different sort of kindness that he is bestowing upon Mephibosheth-it is an unmerited grace. All he had to do was open his hands and receive what was being offered to him; all he had to do was turn his back and limp away from Lo Debar and enjoy the king’s presence.

Second, I would like to note that the author of 2 Samuel goes quite out of their way to insure against any misunderstanding on our part. We are told that Mephibosheth was living in a land called Lo Debar-a place of ‘no pasture.’ He was living with a person named Makir, son of Ammiel, in a house that was not his. We are told that Mephibosheth thinks of himself as a dog-a dead dog. We are told twice that he was crippled in both feet. And we are told that the servant Ziba was better off than was Mephibosheth. We get the picture then that this young man was in quite difficult straits when David seeks him out.

Finally, I would point out to you what David did for him. He brought him from the land of no pasture and gave him quarters in Jerusalem. We are told a third time in verse 7 that David showed him kindness, “I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.” We are told that David restored all of the ancestral land of Saul, his servants in order to works the land a provide Mephibosheth with an income. We are told four times that Mephibosheth ate at the king’s table, ‘like one of the king’s sons.’ David simply overwhelmed Mephibosheth for no other reason than the kindness he desired to share with him, God’s kindness.
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I don’t want to stress this too much. Seeing the tree with the lights in it was an experience vastly different in quality as well as in import from patting the puppy. On that cedar tree shone, however briefly, the steady, inward flames of eternity; across the mountain by the gas station raced the familiar flames of the falling sun. But on both occasions I though, with rising exultation, this is it; praise the Lord; praise the land. Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 81-82

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It does make one wonder, though, why the story of Mephibosheth’s waterfall experience ends the way it does. “And Mephibosheth lived in Jersusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table, and he was crippled in both feet.”  I wonder if that is what Mephibosheth remembered too each day as he limped to David’s table or as he was carried in to the king’s dining room by others. No matter how often he ate at the table of David, he was continually reminded that it was the kindness of David that invited him to be there in the first place.

It was a constant reminder that he had done nothing to merit the position the king had placed him in that day. I wonder if Mephibosheth ever thought to himself: I’d rather have two perfect legs than to be here right now. Or, I wonder if he had the courage to say, David is a gracious man.  He wasn’t invited in because he was alive, or because David had sympathy for a cripple, or because he deserved it. He was invited in because of David’s kindness.

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is make perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7ff)

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You see, friends, you should quite understand by now that this story is not about the dead-dog named Mephibosheth. A careful reading shows that this story in 2 Samuel is about David, king of Israel. It is about showing the actions that David took-note how his kindness imitates God’s kindness-at the beginning of his reign as king. It was David who asked. It was David who sought. It was David’s table. It was David’s kindness. It was David who restored the land and servants. It was David who was king. It was David who adopted Mephibosheth as a son much like Saul had done to David early on in David’s life.

It is God who takes the initiative in our lives. It is God who invites us to His table. It is God who invites into His Royal presence. It is God who seeks us out. It is God who shows us kindness-But when the kindness and love of God our savior appeared, he saved us not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy-in the midst of our trouble. It is God who invites to dine at his table. It is God who is King and by his own prerogative makes us adopted children by his grace. It is God who has promised us a place in His Kingdom.

We too often focus on this idea that Christian life is about me. The Bible declares unequivocally that the Christian life is about God. It is about His power. His salvation. We live, and move and have our being in Him. It is not about becoming sound. It is about opening our hands under the waterfall and allowing his grace to be poured out in such abundance that we can scarcely stand under its weight. In other words, grace will always say far more about the gracious one than it does about the one receiving the grace.
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Philip Yancey, in his book Rumors of Another World, brings out an intelligent point. He writes

…I found myself reflecting…on the sharp contrast between how Jesus treated moral failures and how the church often does. Jesus elevated sinners…He appointed a Samaritan woman as his first missionary. He defended the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume…He restored Peter to leadership…

I reflected also on the greatest gift we have from the unseen world, the gift of grace. Grace means that no mistake we make in life disqualifies us from God’s love. It means that no person is beyond redemption, no human stain beyond cleansing. We live in a world that judges people by their behavior and requires criminals, debtors, and moral failures to live with the consequences…even the church finds it difficult to forgive those who fall short.

Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance…When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent. (222-223)

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So many things have been shown me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. -Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 69

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Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison in South Africa. When he was finally released he was elected president of South Africa. He appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But he also did something else: If a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Many grumbled. But, “Mandela insisted that the country need healing more than it needed justice.” Philip Yancey continues the story:

At one hearing, a policeman name van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an 18 year old boy and burned the body, turning it on the first like a piece of BBQ meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body and ignited it.

The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had first lost her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she want van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policemen nodded agreement.

Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” (Philip Yancey, Rumors from Another World, 223-224)
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Grace takes the focus away from the ugly, the heinous, the vicious. It turns our attention towards the lovely, the beautiful, the majestic. That is what God does for us, and what we must do for one another. “We can’t live a life more like Jesus by embracing a way of life less like Jesus.” (Peterson, 336) We must be people like David, like the unnamed old woman of two murdered loved ones-if grace is received like a waterfall filling our hands, then we certainly have more than enough to share. So let the grace you have received spill over, intentionally, to the lives of others.

This is but one way you can demonstrate that you do love.
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David was reckless for inviting Mephibosheth into his palace to eat around his table, but it was the only hope Mephibosheth had. Tim Keller wrote a little book called The Prodigal God, in it he notes that the word ‘prodigal’ means not ‘wayward’ (as we have been taught to believe) but actually ‘recklessly spendthrift.’ He writes, ‘It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the Father in [the story Luke 15] as his younger son. The Father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to ‘reckon’ or count his sin against him or demand repayment…God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience…” (xiv-xv).

Friends,

I preached this sermon back in November of 2006. It was the first in a series of 8 sermons I preached on the subject, The Dangerous God. Sometimes I think that we Christians are more content to put our faith in places where there is obvious power or obvious safety. But this is not the way of God. God operates in rather ironic ways and a careful reading of the Scripture demonstrates that God is, in fact, dangerous. The sermon takes a little more than 35 minutes and is based on Judges 7. When I can, I’ll post the manuscript version. Illustrations are from Your God is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan, The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey, Rosie O’Donnell, and David F Wells’, No Place for Truth.

Listen Here: The God Who Does More with Less, Judges 7

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Always for His glory!

Friends,

Here is an important post from my friends at CRN.Info and Analysis concerning the grace of God. The important part, however, is not necessarily in the post proper, but rather in the replies that it has generated so far. (26 as of this post.) I will explain in more detail below. First, let me set the stage by reviewing the post.

The post begins with the retelling of a story from Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? It’s the story of a young woman who is deeply embroiled in prostitution who sells her 2 year old daughter because she makes good money doing so. Here’s what happens next:

At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. “Church!” She cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Philip Yancey then writes:

“What struck me about my friend’s story is that prostitutes much like this woman fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer felt welcome among his followers. What has happened?

The author of the blog post, Joe Martino, rightly points out that this is exactly what has gone on in the church by noting what the church has become: Not a refuge for hurting people, but a miserable place where Christians thrive on destroying one another (as exemplified in the world of blogdom). The woman in Yancey’s story is right: Why would anyone want to go to a place where the people there only make them feel worse. Churches are good at making people feel worse. We are really good at helping people ‘comprehend their worse-ness.’ Ironically, most people need very little help understanding the depth of their depravity.

The problem is that we construct churches nowadays so that they ‘fit the neighborhood.’ The neighborhood, sadly, is often a place in the suburbs, or a place where people of like feathers can gather in way-too-expensive buildings where all the latest amenities are present (ATM’s, Coffee shops, McD’s, etc). We Christians plant churches in comfortable neighborhoods where comfortable people can go and worship a comfortable God in a comfortable atmosphere along with other comfortable people. We necessarily exclude people like the prostitute in the story because there is no room for her in our comfortable world.

In other words, the churches we plant and the churches we are, are notplaces constructed for the hurting, the broken, the fragile. They are places constructed for the comfortable. (A shabbily dressed prostitute is unlikely to believe for a minute that she is welcome, let alone wanted, in the typical suburban mega-churchopolis; or in most churches for that matter.) We hope will remain comfortable because if they are uncomfortable they might not want to be a part of our club any more. But what if churches were places where the hurting people of this world knew they were not just welcomed but wanted? How would we accomplish such a thing? How would they know? What sort of preaching would they hear on Sundays, Saturdays, or any days?

Well, one person who responded to the post at CRN.Info demonstrates exactly what would not happen in a church where people, hurting people, knew they were wanted. Here’s one one respondent wrote:

And the wonderful thing about this story is it is not about grace! Grace is not grace if we offer our broken approval and don’t tell the truth. [Where did the author offer broken approval?] Of course a sinner is going to feel lousy in the church if the law is preached and they come face to face with their sin. [Can’t people come face to face with their sin by preaching grace? Why does a person need to feel lousy at church when they feel lousy every minute, of every day? Shouldn’t ‘church’ be different?] Of course, we should do so seasoned with salt. But allowing an unrepentent [sic.] sinner to be locked in the chains of their sin without offering a way out is not love, nor is it grace. It is our broken attempt at empathy. [Uh, where did the author leave the sinner locked in chains?]

* * *

I fully understand what grace is. [No, you don’t; no one does.] But no one can understand the depth of the grace of God until they understand the awful depth of their sin. [Yes, they can. They live it every day! They see it in the mirror, their empty pockets, their broken relationships, etc.] I see this prostitute as one who has a sorrow for the pain of her addiction, a sorrow for what she has to do to feed it, but not a godly sorrow that leads to repentance and trust in Jesus. [How do you know what she was feeling, were you there?]

* * *

I agree that the church is broken. I agree we need to be much more like Jesus. [When Jesus preached to the prostitute in John 8 he did not demand repentance. He simply said, ‘go and sin no more.’ But there is nothing implicit in that sentence that demands she ‘repent’ of her past sins, only, rather, that she guard herself from future sin.]  I don’t think we do this through compromise with sin, however. [No one does. No one did. This is a straw-man.] I think the church can do much better at reflecting the love of Jesus to a hurting world, while still communicating the truth of Gods Word. [Then we should teach grace, because, as you say, law cannot save us; it is a poor mirror at best.] We as individuals are called ambassadors, communicating the will of the King to a world that He died for. [Emphasis all mine.]

These quotes are from three different responses, all by the same author, but they faithfully convey the point this particular author is trying to make. He wrote, “But no one can understand the depth of the grace of God until they understand the awful depth of their sin.” I’m curious about this comment because I think the author of it has inferred it, incorrectly, from Scripture but has not read it explicitly. But, and here’s the point, how much more did this particular prostitute need to ‘understand the awful depth of her sin’? She was living the awful depth of her sin! She understood it every minute she was awake. What she needed was the grace of God, what she needed was relief, what she needed was a balm, what she needed was a church–not in the sickening sense of a building with multi-purpose rooms and stackable chairs, but a people who shared in her hurt, suffered with her, carried her burden. 

No one would condone sin by offering her a way out of her sin. Sinners need to know not that they are so pathetically bad that all they can do is feel worse or understand they are worse than they already know. Sinners need to know there is a way out of their current situation; a different way; a better way; a Jesus Way. When Jesus healed the man named Legion, he didn’t first sit down and explain to Legion the depths of his depravity or discourse on the Law and demonstrate how a holy God demands perfection. Jesus simply set the man free, then the man wanted to follow him. The woman at the well in John 4, again, no demand for repentance; just an offer of Grace. The apostle Paul: No demands; just grace. Now this is not to say that they did not repent. It is to say that grace has its own funny way about itself. In Luke 15, the Father demanded nothing of the prodigal son; only the older brother did. And we can see quite clearly in the parable whom Jesus takes the most offense at. The Father offered unconditional grace; the older brother did not. (Before I’m accused of not paying attention to the younger son’s ‘repentance’, please carefully note in verse 20-24 the Father ignores the prepared speech the younger son gives in verse 21.)

The point of the original post is not that repentance isn’t important or that preaching ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ should be neglected. Rather I think the point is that the church never gets to that point because ‘sinners’ do not want to be a part of, or visit with, or be involved with Christians in a place where they see people ripping each other to shreds, people who are supposed to love one another deeply. In other words, how can the sinner trust the church when it says ‘God’s grace saves you’ when it is clear to any thinking person that the church refuses to practice grace towards one another? Jesus said, “Love another. By this all men will know you are my disciples.” Love one another he said. But we don’t. We devour one another for sport. We destroy one another for pleasure. We devastate one another for utter delight and joy. This, I contend, is why people don’t want to be a part of the church and why they believe the church makes them feel worse and further why they won’t listen when we talk about sin.  Jesus may well have preached such things when he was at the dinner parties of ‘sinners, tax-collectors,’ and the like. But Jesus first had to find himself in the company of ‘such people’ before he did so.

Why did Jesus have to command us to love one another? Why did he have to command the one thing that should be the most natural to those saved by grace?

The replies I quoted above were written in response to Joe’s post. The irony is this: Joe’s post was confessional. He wrote:

And the whole time people who’s lives are being blown apart just keep on dying. They just keep on living the wrong way because Darn It, I AM RIGHT!!!   One camp  picks apart a person in the other camp because he doesn’t go far enough down the Theological trail with them. They may agree that one goes to Heaven by believing on the work on Christ but down the path they disagree so it’s Ok to tear each other apart. I wonder, does this make you as sick as it does me?

The second response in the thread is this:

Point the finger at this site, because you all are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If you disbanded, it would be one less place that was spewing hate on the blogosphere towards brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is from the same person who wrote those three responses above. Implication: He is unwilling to admit that he, too, is part of the problem. Joe did this; Pastorboy did not. Do you see how Joe’s point is proved in the very responses made by Pastorboy? What a sickening display, which is why I’m still awake at 1 AM writing this lengthy post exposing the ignorance of one who claims to understand grace: He doesn’t. Grace does not point the finger at other people; it points the finger at the self. Grace does not admit the faults of others, but the faults of the self. Grace does not help other people realize their sins, it rejoices that it’s own sins have been forgiven and delights to share the same with others. Grace needs no help tearing people apart that they may be set free. Grace makes no demands of us.

Still, the bottom line to the story is that woman’s criticism of the church is dead on. Churches are so concerned about protecting their purity that they can do very little to involve themselves in the lives of broken people. All we do is rant and rave against all the big stuff while offering very little in the way of imparting God’s healing grace in Christ to hurting and broken and shattered people.

There is a big difference between these two ideas, a difference, I suspect, that would make more sinners give their attention to God than there mere pointing out of how depraved they are. Instead of putting all the focus on humans and their depravity, why don’t we instead put all the focus on Christ Jesus and His truly remarkable, amazing, incomprehensible grace. It seems to me that to do the former is to make church far more about ‘me’ than it should be; to do the latter is to keep the focus exactly where it should be: On Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Friends,

Here are some thoughts on grace. I just cannot believe, at times, how abundant God’s grace is. Strangely enough, I think it is the church many times that is most afraid of this grace. My prayer is that the church will learn grace not only saves but that it empowers us to live freely. Too often the church condemns to hell those whom God has not condemned to hell. The church needs to recover the message of grace and soon or there will be no one left to enjoy what God has planned for those who love him, for those He will save through Christ.

There is a real sense in which grace is simply wasteful. That which is freely given can be abused, discarded, and rejected; grace can be scorned. The irony is that for some reason we are prone to reject that which we have no inherent claim to in the first place. It is the Lord who gets the bad end of this deal so to speak. Grace scarcely makes sense to the saved, much less the lost. Sadly, it is Christians, the very ones who are the beneficiaries of this saving grace, who misunderstand it the most. I am included.

I have been preaching now for roughly 13 years. I have a Bible college degree. I have been a Christian since I was 13. I have hardly missed a day of worship, a summer of church camp, or a day of Bible school since I was 5. Despite this remarkable list of credentials, I am not convinced that I had any inkling of what grace really means until about two months ago. It was there in plain sight yet I missed it. I have preached sermons about it. I have claimed to be saved by it. Yet for all this I was still oblivious. It was one thing to believe that I was saved by grace; however, it was something entirely different to believe that I continued to be saved by it. I always thought that God did the hard part and it was up to me to work it out with fear and trembling.

I call it salvation hokey-pokey. And it is terribly difficult to stay in.

The problem is that I do not believe the Enemy had any intention of allowing me to know what grace was let alone see it in is abundance, sufficient for salvation and sufficient for living. That is a fine game for him to play: keep people blind, oblivious, working, working, working. People who are so busy working out (earning) their salvation have very little time left to actually enjoy it let alone give praise to the one who qualifies them for it in Christ.. As such I did not even realize that I was trying to climb out of a hole that I could never climb out of. I was trying too hard and enjoying no rest. It is not easy constantly reminding oneself of their guilt and thrashing about inside that guilt trying to make amends that can never be made, trying to win approval already granted, trying to re-qualify for a race already qualified for on the basis of someone else’s effort. Sometimes it is much, much easier to live by rules and regulations than it is to live by grace. It is nearly impossible at times to believe that God is willing to continue loving me in spite of me or precisely because of me. In this sense, grace seems wasteful. Now I am beginning to understand Annie Dillard’s words, “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 82)

Needless to say, grace is now the prime-mover in my life. Whereas at one time grace was ‘there’, but not, now I cannot stop thinking about it. I see grace in places where I had not imagined it before. I keep finding myself talking about grace in sermons even when I had not planned on talking about grace. It is not nearly as difficult now to offer an invitation at the end of a sermon because now it doesn’t sound so formulaic, so contrived, so forced. Now invitations at the end, the beginning, or in the middle of a sermon are invitations not to a list of chores and a life of drudgery but rather to the freeing love of God both for salvation and being saved. Not only is this true, but even the manner in which I understand Scripture has changed. Again, I see grace where I had not seen it before.

Just this past weekend, I preached from Colossians 2:16-23. I took two extra weeks preparing for this sermon because I could not figure out what Paul was saying even if what he was saying was clear. The passage was not making sense until I remembered what Paul said at the beginning and end of the letter: Grace! (1:2, 4:18). It is rather simple to understand what Paul is saying in these verses (16-23) if they are approached with an understanding of grace: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthen in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7, NIV). More than one commentator suggested these are the ‘theme’ verses of the letter. Not ironically, then, Paul next writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8). This thought is continued in 2:16-23. His point, I believe, is that when we allow people to pile on us rule after rule after rule we are effectively and essentially declaring our independence from God’s grace. “These things are shadows…he has lost connection with the Head…they are destined to perish…they lack any value in restraining the flesh” (2:17, 19, 22, 23).

When we submit to those who impose such regulations we are declaring that Christ is not enough, that he is insufficient. This is not living in Christ as we received him. This is not living free. This is salvation by slavery which is no salvation at all. This passage, in my estimation, makes little sense apart from grace and 6 months ago it is likely I would have missed this altogether. In the grip of grace, preaching has taken on a whole new life, has a renewed stamina, and new vibrancy. Knowing and understanding grace has altered my objectives in preaching because preaching has taken on an entirely different meaning in light of grace.

Another aspect of my life that has been radically altered by grace is in my relationships with others. This has only just started working itself out in any tangible way, but this is of major importance in my work as a minister of Christ. In a word, I am free now to love without an agenda. Now I can be as much a giver of grace as a receiver. I can be free with everyone and demonstrate the same freeing grace that God has shown me. If grace happens to appear wasteful at the moment that is fine and presents no problems. I can love not because everyone is particularly lovable but because grace loves. Practically speaking, grace has not only freed me from judgment but it has freed me from judgmentalism and this, I should add, is as freeing as being set free. I did not even realize how judgmental I was until I learned that grace is not just for saving but also for living. People do not have to conform to my rules, my standards, my objectives in order for me to love them. My love for others is now proactive. It reaches out before being reached to. It is most remarkable being freed from the notion that others must live up to my standards of holiness and rightness in order to be considered God’s child. “Judging requires that you think yourself superior over the one you judge.” (William P Young, The Shack, 159) Colossians 2:16-23 taught me that if I am saved by grace, and so also everyone who is saved, then the only opinion of anyone that matters is that of Christ Jesus, and I am not Him.

There is an older couple who recently left the church I serve. Their departure has been terribly difficult for me because the rumor as to why they left evidently had something to do with the most recent church budget and a certain line that had something to do with my education expenses. I have put off visiting them for 4 months because I have had no idea what I should say and I did not want to say the wrong thing, and given the closeness of our relationship at one time and my typical prone-to-defensiveness, reactive nature, I was bound to say something wrong. What I have learned is that I can go to them without an agenda. I do not have to go and ‘win them back’ or ‘persuade them to return’. Nor do I have to think that they are somehow apostate because they have chosen to worship elsewhere—even if their reasons for doing so are strange. Instead, I can go to them and offer them my love regardless of the outcome of the conversation. I do not have to have a particular agenda in mind. I can love them, comfort them (the husband has cancer), encourage them, and pray for them. I can demonstrate grace because it does not matter if I am to blame or not. What matters is grace and it is grace that I will speak of when I visit them this week. “Let your conversations be always full of grace” (Colossians 4:6a).

I read a book last week called The Shack. This remarkable book contains a lot of dialogue, but one particularly short section near the end really rattled me.

“Mackenzie!” she chided, her words flowing with affection. “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?”

“Well, I thought so, sorta…” he said sheepishly. “But you gotta admit, rules and principles are simpler than relationships.”

“It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you.” (William P Young, The Shack, 197-198 )

The hardest part of grace for me is God. I, after all, know exactly where I have been, what I have done, and those I have hurt. I know myself all too well and I figure that if I know myself this well then God can only know me better. What gets me is that he wants me to be saved. What gets me even more is that he went out of his way to make certain it was a reality. It is hard, very hard, unbelievably hard at times to think that not only do I not have to make up for my sins but that ultimately I cannot. If the enabling power of God’s grace has freed me to love people, and to preach graciously, how much more has it freed me from the guilt of sin? And yet it is this very guilt that I seem to be reluctant to let go of.

Yet there it is. Philip Yancey comments, “Grace means that no mistake we make in life disqualifies us from God’s love. It means that no person is beyond redemption, no human stain beyond cleansing…Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance…When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent.” (Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World, 223) I think the reason why grace makes so much sense is because it makes no sense at all. “…God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to saved those who believe…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Cor 1:21b, 23, NIV). This is what the world finds so difficult to believe. It is also what the church finds so difficult to believe. We thus end up worse than those ‘visitors’ in Colossae who piled rule after rule upon the church, worse than the Pharisees who in their haste to make disciples of law and order instead made children of hell, worse than the Judaizers in Galatia who insisted on a “Jesus…and” plan of salvation. I suspect this has, based on this evidence, always been a problem among those God calls.

I, no less than anyone else, struggle with grace. But I am learning. I am learning that God will not fail to finish in me the good work he began. The church needs to awaken to this message of God’s grace that is testified to abundantly in Scripture. Grace has taught me that God loves me and wants to save me. The question is whether I will let him do so or not, and on his terms. Grace may be difficult to understand. It may be wasteful by human standards. At the end of the day, however, we have nothing else to cling to. I am learning each day to trust that God loves me and His word to us in Christ that by grace we have been saved through faith. I am learning to trust that if in the course of writing a paper or a sermon I forget to capitalize all personal pronouns relating to God, he will not hate me and hold it over my head until I confess. I am learning that grace covers a multitude of sins. I am learning to trust Him for that which I cannot trust myself. Living free is far better than living in guilt. It frees me to love without an agenda. It frees me to be loved.

Annie Dillard wrote, “So many things have been shown me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 69)

Soli Deo Gloria!