Living “in the world,” we can look for natural opportunities to dispense grace — not just words — to those around us. Gabe Lyons recommends inviting community leaders, whether Christian or not, into church to tell how best to engage with the neighborhood and its problems. As he notes, African American churches have historically done that, finding ways to honor teachers, firefighters, social workers, and politicians, all of whom serve without much recognition.
A pastor friend of mine in Chicago operates an internet wedding site. Couples who don’t know a pastor, and thus look for one on the internet, contact him. He insists on counseling sessions before agreeing to perform the ceremony, and he always asks two questions: “Why do you want to get married?” (almost all of them are already living together) and “Why do you want a pastor involved?” Remarkable conversations unfold as the parties struggle aloud with their answers. As one said, “Well, if there is a God, marriage is so important that we think God ought to be involved somehow.”
Kathleen Norris writes about a “cocaine whore” in rural Montana who would sleep with anyone who could provide her with booze or cocaine, or merely show her the slightest bit of attention.
She found Alcoholics Anonymous first, then God, and then church. Soon she was signing up for every Bible study and volunteering for every church-ministry project, as well as for committees that others had to be begged to join. “Salvation took such hold in her that, as the pastor put it, he began to wonder if Christians don’t underrate promiscuity. Because she was still a promiscuous person, still loving without much discrimination. The difference was that she was no longer self-destructive but a bearer of new life to others.” The twelfth step in AA’s guide to recovery — helping others in need — is an act of gratitude. We respond to healing grace by giving it away.
Pastors in both places, Chicago and Montana, began with a good thing, love, and gently pointed toward something even better. Romantic love may lead the way to the Source of all love; passion rightly channeled brings life, not ruin.
I know a former Southern Baptist pastor in North Carolina who, against all odds, now runs a private cigar club. He explains, “I learned from my years in the ministry that when men go deep in conversation and get honest with each other, there’s usually a cigar involved. That’s when they talk about what really counts — sitting on a patio after a golf match or relaxing together on a deck when their wives are inside the house. So in our club we have volunteers available who strike up friendships and know how to respond when the men want to talk about their failing marriages or job layoffs or rebellious teenagers.”
Once, while speaking on the topic of grace in Toronto, I asked the audience about their own experiences conveying grace to others. One woman shocked us all: “I feel called to minister to telephone marketers. You know, the kind who call at inconvenient hours and deliver their spiel before you can say a word.” Immediately I flashed back to the times I have responded rudely or simply hung up. “All day long these sales callers hear people curse at them and slam the phone down,” she continued. “I listen attentively to their pitch, then I try to respond kindly, though I almost never buy what they’re selling. Instead, I ask about their personal life and whether they have any concerns I can pray for. Often they ask me to pray with them over the phone, and sometimes they are in tears. They’re people, after all, probably underpaid, and they’re surprised when someone treats them with common courtesy.”
Hearing such stories, I am aware how often I miss possible hinge moments in my own interactions with people. I marvel at the Toronto woman’s gracious response and think of the times I get irritated with marketers and with employees on computer help lines who don’t speak good English. I catch myself treating store cashiers and Starbucks baristas as if they were machines, not persons. I get a wedding invitation and groan at the hassle of having to shop for a gift and dress up. I rush away after a golf match rather than relaxing on the patio with my partners. Subtly or not so subtly, I let the other person know that I’ve been interrupted and need to get back to work. In the process, I miss golden opportunities to dispense grace.
What would it take for church to become known as a place where grace is “on tap”?
All too often outsiders view us as a kind of elite club of the righteous.
An alcoholic friend once made this point by comparing church with AA, which had become for him a substitute church. “When I show up late to church, people turn and look at me. Some scowl, some smile a self-satisfied smile — See, that person’s not as responsible as I am. In AA, if I show up late the meeting comes to a halt and everyone jumps up to greet me. They realize that my desperate need for them won out over my desperate need for alcohol.”
One gray fall day in Denver I visited an urban church that makes grace the center point of ministry. This congregation addresses the contentious gay issue not by writing position papers but simply by welcoming all who come. Their bulletin expresses it this way:
Married, divorced or single here, it’s one family that mingles here.
Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here.
Big or small here, there’s room for us all here.
Doubt or believe here, we all can receive here.
Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.
Woman or man here, everyone can serve here.
Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.
In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us, let us live and love without labels.
From there I went to a barbecue fundraiser for a nonprofit organization that provides food for Denver’s hungry population. A number of sponsoring churches had sent representatives, and I agreed to say a few words and give away some books. The organizers hoped for a turnout of three hundred, but a cold, drizzly rain kept attendance down to less than half that. The Denver Broncos football team was playing that day, and it occurred to me, as I looked out over the sparse crowd huddled under umbrellas, that sixty thousand screaming fans in a stadium had gladly paid to sit through miserable weather for three hours. Instead, a cause like hunger attracted a small group of churchgoers, idealistic college students, and street people who always seem to know where food is being served.
In the sermon I had heard at church that morning, the guest preacher mentioned she had puzzled over the story of the widow who gave all she had, no more than a few pennies. Why did Jesus merely use her as an object lesson, contrasting her with the rich people who proudly made large contributions? Why didn’t He do something to address her state, perhaps by proposing a poverty program? The preacher told us her conclusion: “God leaves the justice issue up to us.” I had heard Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, say something similar:
“God has a plan to fight injustice, and that plan is us — His people. There is no Plan B.”
I pondered that statement as I stood in the rain and watched a small crowd of volunteers assemble food parcels while a soul sister belted out, “His eye is on the sparrow.” For whatever reason, God seems to leave a lot of issues up to us. And the church totters on; we are, after all, the chosen channel for God’s good news.
Watch the Vanishing Grace Video
Excerpted with permission from Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey, copyright Zondervan, 2014.
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So often, real grace shocks us. It offended people in Jesus’ day and it offends people in our day. We may think, “That person, or that group, or that culture don’t deserve grace. They’re bad! They’re sinning! They’re wrong!” But, where would we be if we didn’t have the grace we don’t deserve either? Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily
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