The Common Good

There’s Something in the Air: Grace

Moments before I left Laguna Beach to drive to Long Beach one recent Friday afternoon, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved its stay on gay marriages, giving California county clerks permission to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time in more than five years.

RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Plaintiffs speak to the media June 26 after the Supreme Court rejected Prop 8 on legal grounds. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

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By the time I reached the parking garage at the Long Beach Convention Center, where the United Church of Christ was holding the denomination’s national, biennial gathering, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, a gay couple from Burbank who were plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Prop. 8, were exchanging vows at Los Angeles City Hall.

Isn’t it extraordinary how quickly history changes course?

But then “quickly” is a matter of perspective. I dare say those who have been fighting for equal rights since the Stonewall riots in 1969 and before wouldn’t deem legal and cultural acceptance of homosexuality “quick.”

Still, whether long-in-coming or fast, change has arrived.

How epic change transpires also is a matter of perspective.

It seems to me that the driving catalyst behind the transformation of social and spiritual perspectives about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues has been relationships. When you actually know and love people who are gay it is much more difficult to uphold ideological opinions that would dismiss, judge or condemn them.

Relationships destroy hypotheticals.

It’s a point of view shared by many who were busy celebrating the Supreme Court decisions on Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act when I arrived at the UCC convention in late June.

Relationships are, at their very core, spiritual experiences. Years ago I read a book by British theologian John V. Taylor called The Go-Between God. In it, Taylor argues that the Spirit of God is as powerfully presentbetween people as it is in people.

“Space has been created for people to have genuine encounters and to be engaged in actual relationships,” said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, the UCC’s executive and minister for LGBT concerns. “I think that’s what has really turned the tide. The degrees of separation of people who know someone who is gay have diminished almost to zero.”

A few years ago, when the first significant rumblings of change in attitudes and beliefs about homosexuality and gay marriage began in my community, evangelical Christians, I wondered aloud if the church might be on the cusp of a new era. A Third Great Awakening, if you will.

I now believe that such transformation in social mores regarding LGBT issues is merely a manifestation of a much more global spiritual shift.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the founding of his church, Willow Creek Community Church, the Rev. Bill Hybels told me that the dominant spiritual need of society had changed in the generation since the 1970s, when his megachurch began as a small congregation meeting in a movie theater.

“Thirty years ago, we argued about what was true,” Hybels said. “These days, people seem to be asking, ‘What’s real?’”

Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.

On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.

Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.

Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.

Grace is more than mere equality.

Grace is a gift available to all of us. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But we get it anyway. Abundantly. Audaciously. Without caveat or qualification.

That doesn’t make much sense to our human understanding of justice. It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair. And that’s precisely the point of grace.

Sometimes, by not just “accepting” but by loving without limits, we extend grace to one another. We give each other the space to be known, valued, and cherished for the beautiful and wondrously made people we inherently are.

When asked, “What is grace?” I often answer this way:

Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his baccalaureate address at Wesleyan University in 1964, famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Amen, we say. May it be so.

Might I humbly suggest that the long arc of history surely does bend toward justice and, perhaps, beyond it — toward Grace.

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and the Faith & Values columnist for the Orange County Register in Southern California. Via RNS.

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