Recently, as a component of our worship at Emmaus Way, Wade (our Artist-in-Residence) offered an opportunity for folks in our community to write a series of anonymous prayers to be used in a song he is writing about the faith journey of our community. He and I were both amazed at the amount of personal guilt and shame in these prayers. When we reported this, several friends asked that we begin a conversation series on God's grace.
While some in Christian circles have lamented "cheap grace" (the fear of tossing out blanket forgiveness for just about everything I believe is the concern here)....I think grace is one of the most difficult subjects to wrap one's mind around...
Most of us struggle with the idea of a God who loves us, forgives us, accepts us, and embraces us regardless of the story of our lives.
•Some feel like a value of grace is useless since most of us don't need it.
•Some worry that God's offer of grace is some horrific bait-and-switch, a conditional offer that hides some unimaginable conditions in the fine print.
•Still others find portions of their lives unforgiveable and fear that they are unacceptable to God. (Don't we all truly have that "day," "week," or "season" of our lives that we would like to have back?)
I feel like I fit in all three of those categories simultaneously.
When thinking about the graciousness of God, I often think of the story Jesus told about workers in a vineyard that is reported in Matthew 20. I am deeply indebted to Henri Nouwen for offering a powerful perspective on this story.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard does not present a God (the landowner in the story) who is always easy to understand. Paying those who worked only one hour the equivalent of those who worked all day does not seem to be the best motivation plan for subsequent days. As on person commented, "that kind of stunt might work for one day, but one day only." This is what is so confusing, mysterious — and gracious about God. God simply just doesn't work on our standards and values. What seems wise to us may be foolish to God. Somewhere in here lurks the possiblity that God's concept and empression of grace goes far beyond any of my simple conceptions (that are marred by my conditional understandings of justice).
The landowner of Matthew 20 is man who doesn't look like a privileged landowner at all (or any form of successful entrepeneur or captain of industry). He looks like a man who is committed to an excessive generosity that is freely given at his own expense. This is a clue that many of our objections to grace are unfounded.
But, even if our objections fall aside, how do we pursue this grace that is so alien to our logic and experiences?
The story offers another clue. The landowner pays those who worked least right in the face of those who worked the most. When those who worked all day began to grumble at lack of differentiation in their wages, the landowner asks them point blank why they are envious at his generosity. Henri Nouwen explains that this foolish, naive, excessive landowner in the context of narrative expects these workers to celebrate his generosity. Because they lack gratitude, they cannot celebrate this act of generosity.
Nouwen makes a powerful point. Our pursuit of the experience of God's generosity is related to our ability to foster a discipline of gratitude. As we continue this conversation on grace, fostering a discipline of gratitude will always be near the center of this conversation.
As we face our wounds, the wounds we cause others, our passions to respond to a broken world, our ambitions and expectations...we will need to find a path to explore the complexities of our life from a posture of gratitude.
This weekend, many all around our country will unite in a Night Commute to commemorate the nightly trek of Ugandan children to avoid abuction into the rebel army (for use a child soldiers or sexual slavery). I just spent the afternoon watching "The Invisible Children," a documentary about this horrific situation. After watching the documentary, I thought long and hard about the life situation and opportunties available for my own children. With this juxtapostion — although the concept of God's grace eludes reason, understanding, and sometimes experience —it is not too difficult to find rich avenues of gratitude.