Tuesday, November 8, 2011
It’s About Grace (Everything Is)
One morning some time ago I found myself chatting with a friend who was preparing a sermon for the coming Sunday. “What’s your topic?” I asked. “It’s about grace - but grace is a hard thing to get a handle on.”
That’s when it hit me. Grace is a hard thing to get a handle on, especially in a culture determined to tell us that not only is the world our oyster, but we deserve everything we can grab for ourselves.
If we were raised by responsible and perceptive adults, we got the message early. Life’s rewards are for the deserving, and the way to become deserving is to work. “We get money the old fashioned way - we earn it!” Not only money, but also friendship, respect, reputation, even love, are for those who earn them. This training equips us very well for the ordinary business of life, but can be puzzling when we hear scriptural passages about rain falling on the just and the unjust, God caring for even the sparrows or salvation being free for the asking.
Others among us received a very different message from well-meaning adults who were eager to enhance their children’s self-esteem. “You deserve the very best just because you’re you.” This inculcates a sense of entitlement that makes it nearly impossible to grasp the wonder of grace. Amazing grace? If I deserve all the good that comes my way just because I’m me, there is no place for wonder or amazement.
Both of these orientations to life make it hard for us to get a handle on grace.
Some of us eagerly anticipate hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” believing that the words validate our labor. Isn’t that how we earn God’s love? We run into trouble when the appropriate words come closer to, “What was my good and faithful servant thinking?!” That grace can abound in times of failure is almost beyond us.
It’s no easier if we see ourselves as inherently entitled. “Grace is free? What’s the big deal? I deserve it.” With that attitude, we cannot grasp what “free” means. As for God’s love embracing our unworthiness, we’re not aware of any personal unworthiness.
With these and other reflections I sympathized with my friend. “Grace is indeed a hard thing to get a handle on.”
Then, from deep in my soul, an exuberant voice filled with goodness and joy boomed, “Of course it is! That's the whole point!”
The whole point? What do you mean, “the whole point?” I thought about the complications of grace: the tensions between striving for good vs. letting go; the unconditional nature of God’s love vs. our need to say “yes”; being created in God’s image vs. our actions which mar the image.
To all this God, in good-humored patience, heard me out, and replied in a still, small voice: “You are dust into which I breathed life and imparted my image; ungrateful animated dust, for which I gave my only-begotten Son; proud dust, whom I nonetheless love. Don’t you see? Everything from creation to redemption to new life is sheer gift. Put away the blather about deserving and earning and, for Heaven's sake, let's dance!”
We want a contract that spells out our worthiness, the terms of the deal and how we qualify. God offers a gala extravaganza with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
The fact that we can't get a handle on grace is a sign of our estrangement; the fact that we struggle to get a handle on it is a sign that God honors our questing, and will meet us in the answer. It is in fact a sign of our coming glory, when we move from seeing in a mirror dimly to full vision, face-to-face, knowing God even as God has always known us.
Howard H. MacMullen, Jr.
© November, 2011