The Way of Grace

July 15, 2012

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I imagine most of you are familiar with the motivational posters that have an inspiring photograph with a caption underneath that is intended to motivate you to change your life.  I have often seen such posters in the lobbies of banks or insurance agencies or offices, posters like “Teamwork—Together everyone achieves more” or “Excellence—some excel because they are destined to, most excel because they are determined to” or “Attitude—the greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

Such posters are fine I guess, but I prefer the hilarious “de-motivation” posters from the website despair.com, which claims: “Motivational posters don’t work, but our de-motivational posters don’t work even better.”  These de-motivation posters include “Belief—Believe in yourself, because the rest of us think you’re an idiot” and “Consulting—If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem” and my personal favorite, “Wishes—When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true—unless it’s really a meteorite hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life; then you’re pretty much hosed no matter what you wish for, unless it’s death by meteor.”

When it comes to changing lives motivational posters fall short, but there is something that God freely gives us that can indeed change lives: grace.  In the lesson from his Letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul mentions the “glorious grace” of God, grace that he “lavished upon us” is in Jesus Christ” (1:5-7).

Grace is God’s unmerited favor toward you.  Grace means God not only loves you, he likes you.  Grace means that God is for you, not against you.  Grace means God completely forgives you and warmly accepts you.  Grace means God fully knows you and fully loves you.  In his book Grace in Practice Paul Zahl writes:

“Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return.  Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you.  Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.  It is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable… Grace is one-way love” (p. 36).

Grace means God loves you regardless of your accomplishments or lack thereof, that God loves you just as much whether you graduate summa cum laude or magna cum laude or “Thank you, laude” J, or if you never graduate at all.

Grace is unconditional love.

And Paul tells us that in Jesus Christ God has “freely bestowed” his grace to you and “lavished” his grace upon you.

The moving 2011 Terrence Malick film Tree of Life opens with a voice-over by one of the characters, Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain) who contrasts “the way of nature” with “the way of grace:”

“The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace… Grace doesn’t try to please itself—accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way… They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”

Think about your life for a moment.  If your life is anything like mine it includes some relationships marked primarily by the way of nature, others by the way of grace, and still others a combination of the two.

In relating to yourself the way of nature involves criticizing yourself because of your looks or your weight or because you don’t measure up to what you think you should be; it involves beating yourself up over guilt from your past, and comparing yourself unfavorably against others who appear to have it all together.

Family relationships marked by the way of nature involve bullying, withholding affection, the silent treatment, judgmental glances and comments, force, intimidation, various forms of abuse, and lots of resentment.

Churches marked by the way of nature heap guilt on people, demand that people tithe and be part of a small group and serve on altar guild or vestry and dress appropriately for Sunday services and get their acts together and keep quiet about the fact that your marriage is failing or your child has an addiction or you are feeling really lonely.

What about the way of grace?

In relating to yourself the way of grace involves letting yourself off the hook because God has, seeing your life as a gift to be received instead of a series of competitions in which to prove yourself better than someone else, forgiving yourself because God has already forgiven you.

Family relationships marked by the way of grace involve accepting one another  in spite of your neuroses and idiosyncrasies, giving each other the freedom to be who you really are instead of what others expect you to be, sharing laughter and inside jokes, comforting one another when life hurts, and lots of hugs.

Churches marked by the way of grace are places where you always feel welcomed no matter what, where you are encouraged by the gospel and sacraments, where you can bring your lingering questions and doubts, where you can take a deep breath among the fellowship of forgiven sinners, where you can receive the grace of God anew.

In short, the way of nature kills while the way of grace gives life.

Perhaps like me, you ricochet like a pinball both internally and externally between the way of nature and the way of grace.

The good news of the gospel is that God is a gracious God, that when it comes to you, God has chosen the way of grace.

The way of grace is most clearly seen in Jesus Christ, as John wrote in the prologue to his account of the gospel, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

Mary Chapin Carpenter has just released a remarkable new album, Ashes and Roses (2012).  The songs really resonate with me, and the track entitled, “Old Love” articulates the longing for grace and unconditional love that we all have:

I want old love, the kind that takes years
To turn to gold, love, burnished and seared
On the high wire, by rain, wind and sun
With the hard times forgiven and done

I want old love, the kind that seeps in
It isn’t cold, love, it’s never brittle or thin
It’s the long kiss, it’s the curl of a sigh
Down a hallway, in the middle of the night

I want old love, the kind that can see
Through the holes, love, that lives underneath
All our false cheer, bravado and pride
Through the old fears we carry inside

I want old love, the kind that can say
What it knows, love, and what it learned on the way
In that one voice, familiar and strange
Only old love remembers your name

I want old love, the kind that holds on
When it’s told, love, that all hope is gone
Against all odds, wagers and prayers
To the wall love, to the furthest somewhere

The way of grace is marked by that kind of love, “Old Love.”  The grace God gives you in Jesus Christ is marked by love that indeed sees through the old fears you carry inside, a love that remembers your name, a love that holds on when all hope is gone, a love that goes to the “furthest somewhere” in your life.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus showed people the way of grace.  He freely bestowed grace to people; he lavished his grace upon people—to the wealthy and prestigious pillars of society, to the notorious sinners, to the poor and sick and oppressed, to the elderly, to little kids, to those in serious trouble.  When Jesus fed the five thousand he lavished his grace on the crowd—everyone ate “as much as they wanted” and still the disciples “filled twelve baskets” with leftovers (John 6:11, 13).

At the Last Supper Jesus reminded his disciples again that his way is the way of grace.  He welcomed them by washing their feet.  He ate with them even though they were still talking among themselves about which of them was the greatest.  He instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion, taking the bread and wine and gently telling them—“This is my body, broken for you… this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

In his definition of the sacraments ThomasCranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation, emphasized that sacraments demonstrate that God has chosen the “way of grace.”  He defined sacraments as “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 872).

This means when you receive Holy Communion with empty hands you can be reminded again and again that no matter what is going on in your life God’s way is still the way of grace—that God still loves you, still forgives you, still freely bestows his grace to you, still lavishes his grace upon you.

And the day after the Last Supper Jesus revealed the way of grace to the fullest extent when he died on the cross at the hands of those who preferred the way of nature.  Jesus accepted “being slighted, forgotten, disliked;’ accepted “insults and injuries.”  Yet even then Jesus freely bestowed grace to and lavished grace upon those who crucified him.  “Father, forgive them,” he prayed, “they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In my opinion one of the most gifted writers and speakers about the grace of God is Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest who has often been criticized by the finger-wagging self-righteous for his honesty about his struggles with alcoholism and his failed marriage to his ex-wife, Roslyn.  Brennan’s health is slipping and last year he published his final book, his swan song entitled, All is Grace.  Listen to how he vulnerably describes how the grace of God has intersected with his life:

“I celebrated my seventy-seventh birthday in April.  If you asked me whether what I have done in my life defines my life, I would answer, ‘No.’  That’s not to diminish my sins or humble-bumble my successes.  It is simply to affirm a grace often realized only in the winter of life.  The winter is stark but also comforting.  I am, and have always been, more than the sum of my deeds.  Thank God… If asked whether I have fulfilled my calling as an evangelist, I would answer, ‘No.’  That answer is not guilt-ridden or shamefaced.  It is to witness to a larger truth, again more clearly seen in my later days.  My calling is, and always has been, to a life filled with family and friends and alcohol and Jesus and Roslyn and notoriously good sinners…  If asked whether I am going gently into old age, I would answer, ‘No.’  That’s just plain honest.  It is true that when you are old, you are often led where you would rather not go.  In a wisdom that some days I admit feels foolish, God has ordained the later days of our lives to look shockingly similar to that of our earliest: as dependent children…  If asked whether I am finally letting God love me, just as I am, I would answer, ‘No, but I’m trying’” (p. 183-184).

Because the way of grace is so foreign to the way of nature it takes years and years to seep into our hearts, as Brennan Manning’s honesty makes clear.  This has certainly been the case in my life.  Here is one example of a time when I experienced firsthand the way of grace…

Seven or eight years ago on an overcast weekday in early December I was in my office and a friend of mine, the Rev. Chuck Mullaly from Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood—from which he is about to retire—called me and offered to take me to lunch.  At lunch he graciously asked me about how I was doing, how my family was, how the ministry was going.  He did not talk about himself at all.  When the check came he graciously paid for it.  Then he asked me to do him the honor of allowing him to buy my family some groceries for the holidays.  “Meet me at Sam’s Club,” he grinned.

As we were walking into the store Chuck asked me if we had a freezer.  I nodded.  “Excellent!” he said.  He grabbed a cart and we began.  I wasn’t sure what to do and felt a little awkward.  He took the lead and simply began asking me what my family liked—“Do you all like chicken?”  “Sure.”  He grabbed some chicken and put it in the cart.  “How about steak?”  I nodded.  He selected a stack of the most expensive steaks and placed them in the cart.  This continued as we went up and down a few aisles—he simply asked me what my family liked and put those things in the cart.  At one point he said, “Please wait here a moment, I’ll be right back.”  A couple minutes later he returned… with a second cart.

At first I was trying to be a “good steward,” only selecting healthy things that we needed—but Chuck was much more gracious than that—he also selected ice cream, cookies, snacks, beer, wine.  Soon the two carts were literally overflowing.

We went through the checkout line and Chuck paid for it all, every bit of it.  Then he helped me load it in the back of my truck.  Then he smiled and hugged me and thanked me for letting him do all this.  Then he left.

I sat stunned in my truck for a few minutes.  I was completely blown away and I couldn’t fight back the tears anymore.  I remember thinking, “Who does this?”  It started to rain so I rushed home.  My family and I were all laughing as we unloaded my truck in the rain.  “Dad,” one of my kids exclaimed excitedly while jumping up and down, “this is sooo much food!”

That is what way of grace looks like.  That is what it looks like to have grace freely bestowed to you and lavished upon you.

And that is the good news of the gospel, that when it comes to you, God has chosen and continues to choose the way of grace.  Jesus’ death assures you that because he shed his blood for you, you have been forgiven, that as Paul put it, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”

This means that, as Brennan Manning puts it, “If I’ve learned anything about the world of grace, it’s that failure is always a chance for a do-over” (All is Grace, p. 162).

So as you continue life in a world in which the way of nature tends to be the rule, be encouraged.

God is a gracious God who has sooo much grace for you today, carts and carts and carts of grace.

And because God has chosen the way of grace for you, you can rest assured that at the end of your life you will be received in a new way by the Old Love of God, “the hard times forgiven and done.”

Because God has chosen the way of grace, you can rest assured that you will never come to a bad end.

Amen.

Bible References

  • Ephesians 1:6 - 7

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