May your study be fruitful and uplifting. While we are still not meeting together physically, we are still united in Christ. We go forth to meet the challenges before us by the grace of God, with the presence of Christ in our lives, and the power, strength and encouragement of the Holy Spirit.
Blessings and peace,
Monday, February 8, 2021
Recall some of the events or issues of racism during this past year.
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 100
“The second great power of forgiveness is that it can loosen the stranglehold of guilt in the perpetrator.
Guilt does its corrosive work even when consciously repressed. In 1993 a Ku Klux Klansman named Henry Alexander made a confession to his wife. In 1957 he and several other Klansmen had pulled a black truck driver from his cab, marched him to a deserted bridge high about a swift river, and made him jump, screaming, to his death. Alexander was charged with the crime in 1976 – it took nearly twenty years to bring him to trial – pled innocent and was acquitted by a white jury. For thirty-six years he insisted on his innocence, until the day in 1993 when he confessed the truth to his wife. ‘I don’t even know what God has planned for me. I don’t even know how to pray for myself,’ he told her. A few days later, he died.
Alexander’s wife wrote a letter of apology to the black man’s widow, a letter subsequently printed in The New York Times. ‘Henry lived a lie all his life, and he made me live it too,’ she wrote. For all those years she had believed her husband’s protestations of innocence. He showed no outward sign of remorse until the last days of his life, too late to attempt public restitution. Yet he could not carry the terrible secret of guilt to his grave. After thirty-six year of fierce denial, he still needed the release only forgiveness could provide.”
Henry surely carried a heavy burden around for a very long time. No one knows what it was like for him to live with that on a daily basis. All we know is that, in the end, his guilt got to him and he confessed. Yet, it was too late to do anything about it. He had no idea what God’s reaction would be in the end, but surely he felt that only if he confessed would there be forgiveness.
Looking at this from a different perspective, are there times that we lack the guilt that would drive us to confession? Thinking about Henry’s racist act back in 1957, or his acquittal in 1976, or the events of this last year related to racism, how have things really changed? While we may not have been involved in such a heinous crime as Henry’s, we are not without fault by any means. The white privilege that Henry had granted to him being tried by a white jury is still alive and well today.
Many people turn their heads so as not to see it or openly deny that racism, particularly systemic or institutional racism, exists. They don’t want to believe that people of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate and receive longer sentences for the same crime as whites. They don’t want to believe that traffic stops take place at a higher rate with many of those stops involving a search of the car. They don’t want to believe that housing and credit practices keep blacks from decent, affordable homes. They don’t want to believe that a black man died with a police officer’s knee on his neck cutting off his breathing and blood flow. These are the big things that we’ve witnessed, yet the list goes on and on with things that are much less obvious, but just as despicable.
Henry’s wife believed his lie, lived with it for thirty-five years, believed it for thirty-five years. How long have whites in this country lived with lies about racism and issues relating to race? How long have we denied our white privilege? We look to the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s as if it answered the question of race forever, not realizing that we have instead instituted A New Jim Crow (I commend the book of the same name written by Michelle Alexander.).
So, will we wait until we are on our deathbeds to confess our guilt, guilt that we may or may not feel, or will we truly confess it now and work to bring about change? Will we open our eyes and ears to see and hear the plight of people of color so that we understand more fully racist issues?Will we be willing to admit to and learn about white privilege and how it negatively affects people of color? Will we ask for God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters of color and then work to dismantle systemic and institutional racism?
Creator God, you created every human being in your image and called them good. Yet we, people of white privilege, in our selfishness and feeling of superiority so often look on people of color as “less than” or “less worthy” in some way. Help us to confess that privilege and then work to put an end to racist attitudes, systems, and institutions. Amen.
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Saturday, February 6, 2021
Take a few deep breaths, open your hands to God.
Taking the Initiative
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 91-92
“At the center of Jesus’ parables of grace stands a God who takes the initiative toward us: a lovesick father who runs to meet the prodigal, a king who cancels a debt too large for any servant to reimburse, an employer who pays eleventh-hour workers the same as the first-hour crew, a banquet-giver who goes out to the highways and byways in search of undeserving guests.
God shattered the inexorable law of sin and retribution by invading earth, absorbing the worst we had to offer, crucifixion, and then fashioning from that cruel deed the remedy for the human condition. Calvary broke up the logjam between justice and forgiveness. By accepting onto his innocent self all the severe demands of justice, Jesus broke forever the chain of ungrace.”
Just prior to this quote, Yancey shared some words from Helmut Thielicke, a German who lived through the horrors of Nazism, and who struggled with forgiveness. He talked about forgiving someone only if they make the first move. He realized that God had forgiven him, given him another chance. Thielicke realized that he needed to take the initiative in forgiveness just as God did.
Taking the initiative in forgiveness can be so very hard. It might be easy when the infraction against us is simple. (Although, Yancey tells a few stories of couples who have been on the outs over some minor stuff, one couple not sharing the same bedroom and eating in separate rooms for months over the wife not putting out a fresh bar of soap.) Usually, when it’s something minor, we don’t feel that the stakes are as great, so giving in and offering forgiveness isn’t as difficult. But when there has been a more serious wounding, then things are much tougher.
By offering forgiveness, it seems as if we are putting ourselves in a one down position in relationship with the one who hurt us. In a world where power, control, and authority are the name of the game, that one down place doesn’t feel good. We understand that forgiveness is necessary and that we might get to that point if the one who wronged us asked (maybe several times) for us to forgive, but taking initiative to forgive before that request is difficult.
Yet, taking initiative is exactly what God did for us by becoming one of us, taking on all of our sin, that we might be forgiven, redeemed through the cross. That wasn’t something we requested, but something freely given. We are called, not only to forgive as talked about in yesterday’s devotion, but are often called to make the first move in the forgiveness process. We can reach out to God for help to soften our hearts, heal our wounds, and give us the confidence to take that initiative that reconciliation might begin.
Loving God, you cared enough to become one of us, to redeem us, to forgive. Help us in those relationships or instances where sin has broken in and we have been hurt to find a way to take the initiative to forgive so that healing might begin. Amen.
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Friday, February 5, 2021
Say the words, “I’m sorry,” a few times.
The Scandal of Forgiveness
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 96
“The scandal of forgiveness confronts anyone who agrees to a moral cease-fire just because someone says, ‘I’m sorry.’ When I feel wronged, I can contrive a hundred reasons against forgiveness. He needs to learn a lesson. I don’t want to encourage irresponsible behavior. I’ll let her stew for a while; it will do her good. She needs to learn that actions have consequences. I was the wronged party – it’s not up to me to
make the first move. How can I forgive if he’s not even sorry. I marshal my arguments until something happens to wear down my resistance. When I finally soften to the point of granting forgiveness, it seems a capitulation, a leap form hard logic to mushy sentiment.”
Isn’t this true? When we are wronged, the first thing that comes to our minds is generally not forgiveness. It’s usually anger or resentment. Even though we know somewhere deep inside that forgiveness should be on the docket at some point, we just can’t go there right away. Perhaps, we have uttered many of the same things that Yancey has when there is that wound that makes us not wanting to forgive.
And even when we get to the point of forgiveness, even when we have come to realize that forgiveness is necessary, it still doesn’t always feel good. We may feel like we’ve lost a battle. Yet, hanging on to the anger and resentment doesn’t usually make us feel any better. Unforgiveness is a difficult thing for both the person who was wronged and the one who wronged him/her. It can even lead to physical maladies for the one who is not ready or unwilling to forgive.
God doesn’t wait to forgive us. Yes, there are often consequences to our actions, lessons that we learn, but in the moment we fall short, we are also forgiven. That was the work of Jesus on the cross. That doesn’t mean we can just live lives of reckless sin. We should strive to do our best toward God and toward one another. God forgiving us immediately in our shortcomings speaks to how we should forgive one another. As noted earlier, it is not an easy thing to do, it is something we are called to do. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Forgiving God, it is so difficult for us in our humanity to forgive others who wrong us. Help us to learn your way of grace and forgiveness in our relationships and encounters
with others. Amen.
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Thursday, February 4, 2021
Who, if anyone, do you find unable to forgive?
Grace and Forgiveness
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 86
“On a visit to Bath, England, I saw a more natural response to being wronged. In the Roman ruins there, archeologists have uncovered various ‘curses’ written in Latin and inscribed on tine or bronze placards. Centuries ago, user of the baths tossed in these prayers as an offering to the gods of the bath, much as moderns toss coins into fountains for good luck. One asked for a goddess’s help in blood vengeance against whoever stole his six coins. Another read, ‘Docimedes has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints.’
As I Looked at the Latin inscriptions and read their translations, it struck me that theses prayers made good sense. Why not employ divine power to assist us with human justice here on earth? Many of the Psalms express the same sentiment, imploring God to help avenge some wrong. ‘Lord, if you can’t make me thin, then make my friends look fat,’ humorist Erma Bombeck once prayed. What could be more human?
Instead, in a stunning reversal, Jesus instructed us to pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ At the center of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught us to recite, lurks the unnatural act of forgiveness. Roman bathers urged their gods to abet human justice; Jesus hinged God’s forgiveness on our willingness to forgive unjust acts.”
We, so often, when we confront the wrong in others, want God to wield some kind of revenge. Sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be something big. Granted, in the Psalms, the revenge or vengeance had to do with some kind of enemy invasion, but in our day, it is often more akin to the Erma Bombeck citation. We want a comeuppance even for things that can be much more trivial. So, when it comes to the “big things,” the vehemence about revenge becomes even greater.
Yet, if we take to heart Jesus’ instructions in the Lord’s Prayer, the tables are turned. It’s not about revenge, but about forgiveness. We expect, even if sometimes we feel we have to earn it, God’s forgiveness, but that isn’t going to happen unless we are ready to forgive others in the same way. Wow! That’s not easy. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is more than just saying the words. It’s a process that involves a change of heart. As we think of many of the events of this last year, especially, we can see what a tall order that is. We still, however, are called to forgiveness. God’s grace extended to us, calls for that same grace for others. We can only do that by calling upon God’s help.
Gracious God, we know the gift of your forgiveness for us, but so often find it difficult to see that such forgiveness is available to others, that we need to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us or hurt us. As you shower us with grace and mercy, may we search our hearts to find the same for others. Amen.
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Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Where do you see God’s grace today?
Knocked Down for Grace
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 66
“…‘But where sin is increased, grace increased all the more.’ Paul knew better than anyone who has ever lived that grace comes undeserved, at God’s initiative and not our own. Knocked flat on the ground on the way to Damascus, he never recovered form the impact of grace: the word appears no later than the second sentence in every one of his letters. As Frederick Buechner says, ‘Grace is the best he can wish them because grace is the best he himself ever received.’”
Just think about Paul’s background prior to his trip down the road to Damascus. He was a persecutor of Christians. God had every right to knock him to the ground and blind him by the light. Things could have been left right there, but the voice of Jesus tells him to go on to Damascus to receive an assignment. When Ananias came to him, Ananias said, “Brother Saul, regain your sight,” and he could see. Then Ananias told him, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice;for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard.”
Not only had Paul’s life been spared, but he could also see again, and was going to be Jesus’ witness. And what a witness he was! His letters were written earlier than the Gospels (with the possible exception of Mark that could have been contemporaneous), and in them he certainly talked about God’s grace that he had experienced in a big way. A man who had beaten Christians to the point of death, or had bound them and imprisoned them, was chosen to be Jesus’ witness.
Perhaps it is in our getting knocked down, getting blinded by the light, experiencing trauma that we realize God’s grace and what it means to us. After this last year, we have learned just how blessed, how graced we had been, and how we still are. There were so many ways we were isolated, were fearful, so many disturbing things that were taking place in our nation. We longed, we still long for the days pre-COVID 19. And yet, through it all we found grace. Technology for one, something that required quick study for many of us, has allowed us to stay connected. Social media has been a place to find worship. No, it’s not the same as in person, but think about what a blessing it has been. We’ve had smart people of science working to understand this virus and find ways to stop its spread, and while we are still not there yet, it seems we might be on our way. What if there was no science at all? There are so many more ways that we can point to grace.
Grace was the best Paul could wish them, because grace was the best he ever received. Because of the grace we have received from God, we are able to offer that grace to others. Let us all find ways not to knock people down, but build them up by being grace-full to them and for them as Jesus’ witnesses.
Loving God, you extend grace to us each and every day, yet sometimes we do not see it or take it for granted. Open our eyes to your grace and help us to share it with others. Amen.
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Monday, February 1, 2021
Consider some of the things for which you need forgiveness.
Getting What We Deserve
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 64
“From nursery school onward we are taught how to succeed in the world of ungrace. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for I know these rules well because I live by them. I work for what I earn; I like to win; I insist on my rights. I want people to get what they deserve – nothing more, nothing less.
Yet if I care to listen. I hear a loud whisper from the gospel that I did not get what I deserved. I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance; I got a banquet – Babette’s feast – spread for me.”
We do indeed live in a world where ungrace is fed and flourishes. Yancey is correct that dealing with that ungrace begins at a very young age. Think back to the playground at school, or gym class, or report cards. We all can recall instances where we were treated with ungrace because we didn’t excel in one way or another, ungrace from peers, from teachers, from coaches and the like.We are judged for how we achieve whether we are gifted in those areas or not. As we mature and deal with other systems and institutions, the ungrace does not go away, but gets reinforced as competition becomes fiercer, what’s at stake becomes greater, and the chasm between success and failure widens.
We often don’t measure up, but even then, God shows us grace. I can’t say it any better than Yancey did about meriting nothing good on our own, but receiving gift upon gift from God, including our being redeemed for life. It’s not what we deserve, but it is what God does for us.
Gracious God, we have learned ungrace very well from our early days, yet you continue to shower us with grace. Knowing that grace, help us to extend it to others. Amen.
Note on Babette’s Feast, the1958 story by Isak Dinesen, made into a movie in 1987:
“In 19th century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is almost a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve to him and their church. After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. Sometime after their father dies, the sisters decide to hold a dinner to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Babette experiences unexpected good fortune and implores the sisters to allow her to take charge of the preparation of the meal. Although they are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead. Babette then prepares the feast of a lifetime for the members of the tiny church and an important gentleman related to one of them.”
—Ed Cannon firstname.lastname@example.org
I might add that this meal was so luxurious that the conservative church members thought it sinful, that it wasn’t deserved. Yet, they had their eyes opened to the grace Babette bestowed on them and enjoyed their time together.
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Friday, January 29, 2021
Hold a cross, look at one or an image of one.
Jesus Remember Me
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 54
“In one of his last acts before death, Jesus forgave a thief dangling on a cross, knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear. The thief would never study the Bible, never attend synagogue or church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said ‘Jesus, remember me,’ and Jesus promised, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ It was another shocking reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.”
God, in creation, has granted us a sense of order – seasons, time, physics, mathematics. We have a tendency to want to keep things in order, to keep track of things. Some of us do that better than others, for instance when it comes to housekeeping and organizing. One area, however, that we, as humans seem to gravitate is the organization of the life ledger – keeping in columns the rights and wrongs, good deeds and missteps – for ourselves, but so often more for others.
And then, we do the comparison. Who is better than whom? Which can be translated into things such as who is more deserving of praise or punishment? Who can be forgiven or not? Who does God love more? Who will “get into heaven” and who will “go to hell?” (I have a whole different outlook on heaven/hell, but let’s save that for another time.)
Grace, however, isn’t about life ledgers, about what we have/haven’t done for God, but what God has done for us. Jesus didn’t need much more than a simple request from a thief to remember him, a thief that hadn’t had the chance to turn his life around, and still Jesus promised him paradise. While that doesn’t mean that we should simply live life carelessly, it does mean that we don’t need to be keeping track. God’s grace covers all of that and erases all the marks we make in the columns, because of the marks on Jesus’ hands and side.
Gracious God, we are so ready to keep track of rights and wrongs – our own and those of others – seeking to settle some kind of score. Help us instead to be grateful for you love and mercy and live a life of grace more authentically and fully. Amen.
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Thursday, January 28, 2021
Ponder looking through glasses or a window.
From Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997).Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 54
“The gospel is not at all what we would come up with on our own. I, for one, would expect to honor the virtuous over the profligate. I would expect to have to clean up my act before even applying for an audience with a Holy God. But Jesus told of God ignoring a fancy religious teacher and turning instead to an ordinary sinner who pleads, ‘God, have mercy.’ Throughout the Bible, in fact, God shows a marked preference for ‘real’ people over ‘good’ people. In Jesus’ own words, ‘There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’”
How many of us would agree with Phillip Yancey? It’s pretty remarkable that how God sees us is, gratefully, so different than we might see ourselves or certain others. We may have had (certainly I have) that feeling that we just aren’t worthy to receive God’s love and mercy, not well enough equipped to do what God calls us to do.
Yet, think about God’s history with humanity. God calls a couple, Abraham and Sarah, who laugh at God about their age when God promises to make Abraham the Father of Nations. Moses questions God’s choice in having him lead God’s people to the Promised Land. He had, after all, murdered someone and he had some kind of speech disorder. That didn’t change God’s choice. He just gave Moses Aaron to do the talking. King David started out as a shepherd boy. Along the way, he made sure that Uriah was killed in battle so that he could have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Although there were consequences for David, what he had done didn’t stop God from using him in God’s plan. Recall those that Jesus called to be his disciples – fishermen, a tax collector, ordinary folks. Jesus had table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The list goes on and on.
So, then, why can’t God use every one of us to carry out God’s mission in the world? Even when we have fallen short, or will fall short, there is God’s grace. Yes, we might have consequences for our actions, but God still loves us, still calls us. God can still use us, and we can trust that God will grant us what we need to answer the call.
Gracious God, so many times we fall short, feel unworthy or ill-equipped in your sight. Your eyes, however, see us differently – worthy of redeeming, worthy of mercy and love, worthy of second chances. Help us to open ourselves to that grace that we might carry out your call with confidence. Amen.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Ponder looking through glasses or a window.
Grace is Everywhere
From What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 42
“Grace is everywhere, like lenses that go unnoticed because you are looking through them. Eventually God gave me eyes to notice the world around me. I became a writer, I feel certain, in an attempt to reclaim words that had been tarnished by graceless Christians. In my first job, with a Christian magazine, I worked for a kind and wise employer, Harold Myra, who let me work out my faith at my own speed, with no pretense.”
Yesterday’s devotion talked about ungrace that Phillip Yancey had experienced in his life, including ungrace in the church, a place where grace should abound. Sometimes, when we have been hurt so much by ungrace, it can blur our vision making it difficult for us to notice grace anywhere else around us. It can challenge our faith. He is fortunate that his first employer, the job being with a Christian magazine, allowed him to work out his faith at his own speed. And lo, and behold, he began to find grace all around him as God gave him eyes to notice.
Yancey uses the metaphor of looking through lenses. If those lenses are clear, no scratches or smears, you don’t even realize they are there. The same thing can happen if you get up close to and look through a very clean window. The glass seems to disappear. He says that grace is like that lens. Grace is all around us and yet it goes unnoticed.
We often miss the little things that grace our lives every day, expectedly or unexpectedly. If we take the time, however, to slow down, to open our eyes, grace is there. Maybe it’s that the snow that needed blowing, although it was pretty deep and drifted in, wasn’t heavy and the job wasn’t as bad as expected. (That was my experience yesterday.)On Monday, grace for us was a good report from Greg’s first follow-up after surgery, followed by a text that contained a video of our grandson Elliott (aka Zemi), and a little later checking the mail to find a box from Shutterfly that contained a little book that Joel and Michelle had put together with pictures of events from every month in 2020 paired with pictures of them and Zemi. None of that was earth shattering, but it was still grace upon grace. Gifts that, though they have some help along the way, come from and by the hand of God.
Where have you seen grace today?
Gracious God, even when we have faced so much ungrace in our world, in our lives, you do not give up on us, but continue to find ways for us to notice and receive grace, grace that is all around us. And for that, we give you thanks. Amen.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2021
What does the word “grace” mean to you?
Leached of Meaning
From What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 41
“Grace did not come to me initially in the forms or the words of faith. I grew up in a church that often used the word, but meant something else. Grace, like many religious words, had been leached of meaning so that I could no longer trust it.”
Phillip Yancey had been hurt by the church, by the way he had been treated. At the Bible college he attended, things weren’t much better. He grew up in a church that he describes as drawing sharp lines between the “age of Law” and the “age of Grace.” While they ignored most Old Testament, there were still rules and regulations. They had their own “pecking order,” as he calls it, with smoking and drinking prohibitions at the top, followed by movies. There were other “no-nos” such as wearing makeup and jewelry, reading the Sunday paper, skirt length for girls, hair length for boys – some of these heeded – or not – depending on the level one’s spirituality. What was Law and what was Grace?
The Church can, on many days, be a wonderful grace-filled place. People meet one another with smiles and greetings of welcome, though today they are virtual. Songs are sung, prayers are lifted up, peace is offered, a meal is shared. Emails are written, phone calls made, cards sent when there are concerns for others, or at times when celebration is in order. Food and clothing are distributed to those in great need.
Yet, often, behind those things there are still lurking shades of ungrace. Do the people who dress or look a little different truly feel welcomed, or is it something in our voice as we address them or the look on our face that betrays that welcome? Do we really mean peace for that person, even when there have been hurt feelings present? Is everyone invited to the meal regardless of age or status? Are our prayers sincere, or just something we do out of habit, something rote from which, as Yancey might say, the meaning has been “leached?” Is there still an attitude for some, that the people receiving help are just “abusing the system” and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” in spite of the fact that they don’t have boots?
The Church is by no means perfect, and while we profess grace, we often miss the mark in extending it. Hence, its meaning can be lost. Fortunately, God is patient with us and loves us, desiring us to love others in the same manner. And so, while we may fall short, God blesses the ways in which we do extend grace, and helps us to keep on keeping on that more and more, our hearts may become more understanding, loving, and caring, and our grace be genuine.
Loving God, so often, even as the Church, a community that professes grace, we often miss the mark. We give thanks for your grace and your patience as we learn to extend it more freely and genuinely to others. Amen.
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Sunday, January 24, 2021
Recall your childhood classroom experiences or report cards.
From What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 36
Like city-dwellers who no longer notice the polluted air, we breathe in the atmosphere of ungrace unawares. As early as preschool and kindergarten we are tested and evaluated before being slotted into an ‘advanced,’ ‘normal,’ or ‘slow’ track. From then on we receive grades denoting performance in math, science, reading, and even ‘social skills’ and ‘citizenship.’ Test papers come back with errors – not correct answers – highlighted. All this helps prepare us for the real world with its relentless rankings, a grown-up version of the playground game ‘king of the hill.’”
Perhaps things are different today, but I remember being called to the reading area at the back of the classroom according to the different level reading groups. I was in the top group, but even as young as I was, I wondered how the people in the lower groups felt. While the differences weren’t necessarily blatantly named, everyone in the class knew what was going on. It was the comparison. It was what Yancey calls ungrace.
We do so much comparison to one-up one another. Calendar wars – who has the most squares filled on their calendar? We compare who has the worst/best health issues. We talk about financial comparisons, their triumphs or struggles. The elements of comparison are myriad.
I hadn’t thought, however, about how papers are graded, highlighting errors versus what is done correctly. How easy it is, then, for us as a society to lapse into looking into what people do wrong versus all the good that they do. We are programmed to look for errors instead of the positive. We are eager to point out faults rather than the good, even in the smallest of measure, that people exhibit. It leads to that place of ungrace.
What would it look like if we didn’t do so many comparisons, didn’t look for errors before the positivein others? What would it be like if we didn’t consider deficits, but gifts in the other person? What if we opted for grace instead of ungrace?
Gracious God, we so often try to grade one another according to comparisons, yet you see us equally as your children. Help us to look at one another through the lens of grace. Amen.
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Saturday, January 23, 2021
Take a few deep breaths to relax.
From What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 13
“The many uses of the word [grace] in English convince me that grace is indeed amazing – truly our last best word. It contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun. The world thirsts for grace in many ways it does not even recognize; little wonder the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ edged its way onto the Top Ten charts two hundred years after composition. For a society that seems adrift, without moorings, I know of no better place to drop an anchor of faith.”
Prior to this quote, Yancey had explored the many uses of the word “grace:” saying grace before meals; being gracious in hosting friends; a composer adding grace notes, an embellishment or flourish, to the score; royalty are often addressed as “Your grace;” receiving extra copies of a magazine past the subscription – grace issues; credit card, insurance, and mortgage companies often have a grace period; and how one can “fall from grace.”
We certainly do use the word grace or forms of it – grateful, gratified, congratulate, gratuity – so often, amazingly often. As we go about the day, it would be interesting to pay more attention to how and when we use it. How many times does it have to do with God’s grace shown toward us?
God’s grace is truly amazing. Born in London in 1725, John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace” know that very well. He had a very rough childhood, and early adulthood was not any better. His father owned a ship and engaged in the slave trade. At age 11, John joined him as an apprentice. As a sailor he renounced his faith (what little he had, not being raised in the church) and was exceedingly disobedient. His father pressed him into the Royal Navy. At one pointed he deserted to visit Mary "Polly" Catlett, a family friend with whom he had fallen in love.
He ended up being traded as crew to a slave ship, beginning his career in slave trading. Newton often openly mocked the captain by creating obscene poems and songs about him, which became so popular that the crew began to join in.His disagreements with several of the crew resulted in his being starved almost to death, imprisoned while at sea, and chained like the slaves they carried. He was himself enslaved and forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone. His father, hearing about John’s treatment, intervened and sent the crew of another ship to find him.
While aboard yet another ship, the Greyhound, he was described as being the most profane man the captain had ever met. In March 1748, while in the North Atlantic, a violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard a crew member who was standing where Newton had been moments before. After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, Newton and another mate tied themselves to the ship's pump to keep from being washed overboard, working for several hours. After proposing the measure to the captain, Newton had turned and said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!"Newton rested briefly before returning to the deck to steer for the next eleven hours. During his time at the wheel, he pondered his divine challenge.
Newton’s conversion was not immediate. He contacted Polly’s family letting them know that he intended to marry her. Her parents were not happy, knowing John’s reputation, yet they allowed him to write to Polly. He remained in the slave trade. In 1750, he married Polly he found it more difficult to leave her at the beginning of each trip. After three shipping voyages in the slave trade, Newton was promised a position as ship's captain with cargo unrelated to slavery. But at the age of thirty, he collapsed and never sailed again.
Working as a customs agent in Liverpool starting in 1756, Newton began to teach himself Latin, Greek, and theology. He and Polly immersed themselves in the church community. John’s passion was so impressive that his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was turned down due to not having a university degree. He continued his devotions, and after being encouraged by a friend, he wrote about his experiences in the slave trade and his conversion. William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, impressed with his story, sponsored Newton for ordination. He was offered curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1764.
Olney was a village of about 2,500 residents whose main industry was making lace by hand. The people were mostly illiterate and many of them were poor. Newton's preaching was unique in that he shared many of his own experiences from the pulpit; many clergy preached from a distance, not admitting any intimacy with temptation or sin. He was involved in his parishioners' lives and was much loved, although his writing and delivery were sometimes unpolished. Partly from the influence of William Cowper, a gifted writer now friend, and partly because learned vicars were expected to write verses, Newton began to try his hand at hymns, which had become popular through the language, made plain for common people to understand. The lyrics to "Amazing Grace" were written in late 1772 and probably used in a prayer meeting for the first time onJanuary 1, 1773. For Newton, the beginning of the year was a time to reflect on one's spiritual progress. At the same time he completed a diary that he had begun 17 years before, two years after he quit sailing. The last entry of 1772 was a recounting of how much he had changed since then. He eventually became an abolitionist.
John Newton, the “wretch,” had discovered God’s grace. After all that he had gone through, after his bent for profanity and immorality, that seed of faith that was planted when he was very, very young, before his life went off the rails, had finally sprouted, grown, and was flourishing. God’s grace, God’s unconditional love and mercy can turn all lives around. No matter what we do or don’t do, no matter how “wretched” we might seem to think it is, separates us from that grace. Now that’s amazing indeed.
Yancey said, “[Grace] contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun.” Or maybe it’s the image of the Son, God’s Son, the one whose gift of forgiveness is pure grace.
Gracious God, we give you thanks that your unconditional love for us, your grace is so amazing that none of us are beyond redeeming. Help us to remember Jesus’ love and mercy and live a life of grace. Amen.
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Friday, January 22, 2021
Take a few deep breaths to relax.
Charity and Taproots
From What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 12
“As a writer, I play with words all day long. I toy with them, listen to them for their overtones, crack them open, and try to stuff my thoughts inside. I’ve found that words tend to spoil over the years, like old meat. Their meaning rots away. Consider the word ‘charity,’ for instance. When King James translators contemplated the highest form of love they settled on the word ‘charity’ to convey it. Nowadays we hear the scornful protest, ‘I don’t want your charity!’
Perhaps I keep circling back to grace because it is one grand theological word that has not spoiled. I call it ‘the last best word’ because every English usage I can find retains some of the glory of the original. Like a vast aquifer, the word underlies our proud civilization, reminding us that good things come not from our own effort, rather by the grace of God. Even now, despite our secular drift, taproots still stretch toward grace.”
It’s interesting to think about the phrase “I don’t want your charity!” It seems that it is often uttered by someone whom we know is in need, but is too proud to take anything to meet that need. It can also be said sarcastically, when someone is giving something to another person but doing so grudgingly – “Never mind. I don’t want your charity!” Is that sometimes how we approach God? Too proud to receive what God has for us? We think that we can just go it alone. Or perhaps, when things don’t come our way in the way we expect, when we feel God is stalling on us, we say “just forget about it.”
Yancey reminds us that good things don’t come from our own effort but by God’s grace. His image of taproots stretching toward grace, in the very difficult time we have been through this last year, a year filled with violence, fear, anger, rioting, finger-pointing, name-calling, COVID-19, brings hope.
Plants with taproots tend to be very drought tolerant. Many desert plants can send roots down more than 75 feet allowing them to find water, even in dry climates or conditions. Taproots can also serve to store food reserves, making them even more self-sufficient and resilient. They also give the plant more vertical stability, anchoring the plant deep in the ground, allowing the plant to stay upright in strong winds.
This last year, we may have felt like we have been in an emotional, spiritual drought after not being able to gather in person. We are starving for interaction that takes place face to face rather than face to an electronic screen. The winds of unrest, the gales of hate speech and anger, even the wafting of aerosolized virus particles have threatened to blow us over. Yet, there is a taproot of grace that can quench our thirst, feed us, and help us withstand the threatening storms. God’s grace has not been absent from us. All the good that we have seen during this challenging time (yes, there has been good) originates from our loving God. Will we say “I don’t want your charity,” or will we soak up through that taproot all that God wants to give us to enable us to endure?
Gracious God, we give you thanks for all the ways that you bless us, even and especially in the most difficult times. Help us to draw on that taproot of grace when we thirst and hunger, when we are facing storms in life. Amen.