Grace

A saying that I have frequently used when discussing God on the internet is this:

I am convinced that God has sufficiently more grace than we credit him.

This has certainly proven true in my own life, and I suspect that even now, I don’t give him nearly enough credit for the amount of grace he has toward his creation.

When I first became a believer, I passed through what I consider to be the first stage of my understanding of grace. In this stage, His grace was good enough for me and a few folks who thought more or less like I did, but not so much for everyone else. It’s chief source text was the following:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

In my initial zeal to follow Christ (a term I would have never used at the time, as it was too “Christian,” too “mainstream,” and too much what “they” used), I tended to classify most everyone as the outsider. The religious right couldn’t possibly be a recipient of God’s grace because of their angry language against groups they disliked, such as homosexuals. Megachurches had to be outside of God’s grace because of their opulent spending on themselves while the poor suffered. Middle-class Christians certainly couldn’t be on the right side of God’s grace because they weren’t radical enough in their pursuit of simplicity of living (in other words, they had too much stuff). Theological liberals had to be graceless because they “watered down” the scriptures to such a degree. And so on.

But fortunately, God’s grace was enough to be patient with me, a wild-eyed, judgemental new Christian. And his sense of humor was enough that he has allowed me to see through the eyes of most of the groups that I had labeled outside of his grace in the past.

And so he led me into stage two of my understanding of his grace. This is the stage in which I have found myself for most of my time as a believer. And its source text would be something like the following:

“I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

This passage, in all of its ambiguity, characterizes what I have come to understand God’s grace to be. The fact is, I as a human can never properly judge who is inside and who is outside the umbrella of God’s grace. It all comes down to the definition of what “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is, doesn’t it?

So what, then, is my definition? Understanding humbly that I am probably wrong to some degree, I would say that “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is a failure to recognize the Trinity for whom they claim to be: God, transcendent, incarnational, and indwelling. When we reject the triune God and instead make other things the gods of our life, then we risk blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

However, I am not qualified to make the judgement about who exactly may be guilty of this blasphemy and who may not. Only God can judge such things.

But it is this very understanding of grace which has turned my previous judgemental certainty on its head. In fact, I am now quite sure there will be a lot of people in heaven – homosexuals and Republicans notwithstanding, who many Christians (including my previous and current self) would have been certain would have been excluded. The sheep and the goats, indeed.

But there’s a third stage of grace which I am just beginning to touch the edges of. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to go there, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss it out of hand. It is the unquenchable, all-consuming grace that Jesus ascribes to the father again and again:

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

The father in this parable does not wait for his son to repent. In fact, he won’t even let him speak. Instead, he graciously receives his son back and restores his place in the family without any need to jump through hoops. His love is so powerful that he cannot but spend his days looking for his son to return, and his grace is sufficient that even the grumblings of his “holy” older son cannot change his mind.

This is the question which leads me down this path: Richard Rohr, at the Politics and Spirituality conference I attended last year, asked if any of us desired the eternal torture of even our worst enemy. And if even we could not bring ourselves to that level, then how could we think that God could do the same?

Now obviously, there are some people who probably do desire to see those who have wronged them tortured eternally, but that says more about their own hearts than the heart of God. In fact, the heart of God tells us to have the opposite motive: that instead of hatred, we have love for our enemies. That instead of desiring their eternal punishment, we pray for their eternal salvation.

The heart of God loves all of his creation, good and bad. And desires to be reunited with it. And who are we to complain if God so chooses to save even the Hitlers and bin Ladens of the world? And how can we claim that he cannot do so (For that matter, who are we to complain if he chooses NOT to save them?)?

While my heart wishes to believe that the hell God is saving us from is simply what we make of our lives on this earth while we live in disobedience, and that the reason we evangelize is so that people can be freed from that hell in this lifetime without waiting for the next and go about the work of building his kingdom on earth, here and now, I recognize that Jesus spends not a small amount of time speaking of hell, sheep and goats, and the like.

It is this fundamental paradox between one part of God’s character – the infinite love which would allow his incarnate son to be killed knowing full well that those he saved would continue to disobey, and another – the righteous judge recounted throughout scripture, which I suspect will challenge me the rest of my life.

But it is this paradox which makes me all the more certain that we will all be quite surprised by the collection of scoundrels we meet in heaven, not the least of which will be ourselves.

Justice

Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:23-24

I first met the prophet Amos during my junior year in college. I was already acquainted with Jesus’ call to love the outcast and the poor, but it was through Amos that I was confronted with the stark reality that God wanted more than individual acts of compassion – he demanded justice.

Israel at the time of Amos was living in a time of prosperity, with no real threats from the nations surrounding it. But that prosperity had a dark side – it was built on the backs of the poor. Archeological evidence shows that in the 10th century, homes in Israel were of a similar size. But that by the time of the prophet Amos, there were a few very large homes in Israel, and many many more extremely small homes. Income inequality had taken root, and the prophet Amos named its cause: oppression.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”

Amos 4:1

Amos’ message is frightening for those of us who live in the developed world at the beginning of the 21st century. A website, the Global Rich List, shows where we stand. $50,000 a year, which is just above the median household income in the United States, is in the top 1 percent of income worldwide. Over 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day, and almost 3 billion live on less than $2 per day. There are more than 27 million slaves worldwide, vulnerable because of their abject poverty.

While most of us do not directly oppress the poor, each of us in the developed world benefits from their oppression. Our computers are cheaper because laborers in the developing world are not paid a living wage and are not given basic labor protections common in the developed world. Many of the products that we buy, from our sneakers to agricultural products, come to us because of the work of modern day slaves. And our addiction to greenhouse gas producing energy promises to displace millions of the world’s poorest in this century, through flooding, famine, and lack of access to drinking water.

The heart of God demands that we take steps to lift up the poor. But how can we do it, when the numbers are so large? The scale of the problem can lead to paralysis.

Rather than give in to paralysis, Jesus calls us to action. We may not be able to save all of the children dying from preventable diseases in Africa, but we can probably contribute money to help buy mosquito netting and vaccines to save a few hundred of them. We may not be able to stop global warming in its entirety, but we can reduce our energy utilization by replacing our lights with compact fluorescent bulbs, adjusting our thermostat, buying a more fuel-efficient car, and purchasing carbon offsets to create more renewable energy. We may not be able to directly create jobs in the developing world, but we can certainly give to micro-loan programs which help the world’s poorest start businesses which can move them above the $2 per day threshold of extreme poverty.

But if we do not act at all, we need to heed the words that the Lord spoke through the prophet Amos almost 3000 years ago:

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.

Amos 5:11

Community

I didn’t realize it at the time, but shortly after I decided to follow Jesus in college, I had the honor to be involved in the most significant experience of community that I have had to date in my life. A bunch of recent converts and recently re-energized Christians, a group of us in InterVarsity Christian fellowship at UCLA decided that we were going to take the words of scripture at face value and try to live them out (what a concept!).

And one of the concepts that resonated most clearly for us was community.

When Jesus died, rose again, visited around for forty days and then ascended to heaven, he still had some business to attend to. That business was the gift of the Holy Spirit which came on the day of the Pentecost. And what was the immediate response of those touched by this spirit? First, they proclaimed the gospel, but second, they banded together into a tight-knit community:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

It is no accident that one of the first orders of business for the Holy Spirit was to go about forming community. For it is only in community that we can implement God’s call to love him and love our neighbor. It is in community that we are empowered to reach out beyond our community and love friend and enemy alike. In the same way that the Trinity models for us the giving, sacrificial love of the Godhead, so community allows us to live out that same giving, sacrificial love both to our immediate brothers and sisters inside community and to the greater world outside.

I’ve been largely frustrated in my pursuit of this ideal since graduating from college. Our world simply is not structured in such a way that community is easily found. We work across the city from one another, live in different neighborhoods, and are encouraged by the American Dream to do everything by ourselves – be an individual – or a nuclear family.

But even though the obstacles are great, I’m going to keep pursuing community in my life. That taste that I had in college was simply too good to give it up now.

The Creeds

Having not come from a church background, and then having my conversion and spiritual growth come in an evangelical environment, I have spent most of my time here on earth blissfully ignorant of the historical Church. In some ways, this is a good thing – new wineskins and all. But in many others, it has left me without a very significant root to my faith.

I’m learning, however, and one of the things I’ve learned is how much more complex we make faith out to be than it actually is. Is it inerrant, infallible, or inspired? Is it immersion or sprinkling? Hymns or praise songs (or something else entirely)? George W. Bush or John Kerry (or, heaven forbid, Hillary!)?

The Creeds cut through all of this nonsense. Creator God? Check. Virgin Birth? Check. Crucifixion and Resurrection? Check.

No mention of inerrancy verses any other type of “in.” Nothing about predestination versus free-will or any other things we use to exclude one another from fellowship. A simple list of basic beliefs, adherence to which makes one “Orthodox.”

I’m pretty orthodox by that standard, although I suspect some people would question that orthodoxy based on some of my views of scripture. But do I believe the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds? You betcha.

Of course, I have a sinking suspicion that even these creeds present entirely more hoops to jump through than Jesus himself did. As a matter of fact, the only creed I really ever heard him say was required for eternal life was the following:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

There, now that was easy, wasn’t it?

Thinking Out Loud

One of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where I stand at a particular point in time is to get it all out on virtual paper. I’m not very good at the discipline, however, which may explain why I go through life confused so much of the time.

At any rate, that’s where I’m going to start here. My first set of posts – for however long it takes to get everything said – are going to revolve around the topic of “what exactly do I believe?”

Oh, and before I get into it – I am not a theologian. Nor do I play one on TV. But I do feel that I know my way around the scriptures to some degree, and do seek to draw near to God by following the example laid out by Jesus in those same scriptures. What you are about to read is the result of about 17 years worth of thought and application (unfortunately more thought than application). 17 years! I can’t believe I’m that old. I decided to follow Jesus at 18, so you do the math. It’s quite striking to me that I have been a follower almost longer than I was not.

Anyway, on with the show!