Grace

Image via RNS/Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

On Jan. 21, I’ll join thousands in D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. My first stop will be at a local congregation, one of several hosting a prayer service and warming station for marchers. I’m an anti-racist, feminist, Christian, and for me, faith will be part of the day.

I’ve been disappointed with Christian silence, and even active resistance, to social justice imperatives, but my commitments to justice stem from my faith, and that’s why I march.

Image via RNS/Reuters/Tim Shaffer

The West Nickel Mines School is long gone. Two of the survivors are now married. Several of the couples who lost their daughters have had more children.

The shooting 10 years ago in [Bart Township, Pa.] made headlines across the world as the Amish rushed to forgive the shooter. But the grief and pain live on.

On Oct. 2, 2006, a heavily armed milk truck driver, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst into the West Nickel Mines School shortly after recess. By the time Roberts had committed suicide, less than an hour later, five girls aged 6-13 were dead, and five others severely wounded.

Yuan Zhiming. Image via China Soul for Christ Foundation / RNS

After applying for an internship with the China Soul for Christ Foundation, a 23-year-old university student found herself in a Paris hotel bed with the foundation’s famous founder, Yuan Zhiming, according to a new independent investigation.

The unnamed woman’s story is laid out in the investigation by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), a Virginia-based nonprofit founded by one of Billy Graham’s grandsons, Boz Tchividjian.

Kirsten Lamb 6-06-2016

I’ve never been more aware of my brokenness than in motherhood. Yes, I’m sinful and bent toward destruction (not unlike my toddler, it’s worth noting). But my brokenness also plays out in a general reality that I’m not quite in working order.

Like a tricycle with a wobbly wheel, I just can’t get the job done gracefully. I leave laundry in the washing machine for too long, I meal-plan for only three days out of the week, I forget to brush hair and wipe faces for picture day. It’s not graceful, but it is grace-full.

Joe Kay 4-08-2016

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Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them? Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?

In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door. That. We all need more of that.

Tripp Hudgins 2-11-2016

Image via /Shutterstock.com

Our son, EP, is nine months old now. Since he was large enough to sling across my chest, I’ve been taking him to Wednesday evening music rehearsals at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, Calif. Of course, this took some convincing.

I had to be convinced.

Kirsten Lamb 1-04-2016

When a picture from my first daughter’s first year pops up, when I was in the throes of postpartum depression, I long for a re-do. To relish the tiny baby snuggles and keep a level head with the all-nighters, knowing it truly does pass. I so wish I would have had the capacity to feel the fullness of the love and terror I felt, instead of putting on the shroud of numbness and apathy that comes with depression.

But there is grace. In an effort to forget what is behind, I will push forward clinging to hope and understanding that regret will be part of this journey too. Regret can be just a tiny shadow in a landscape of laughter, messiness, tears, and living.

Kirsten Lamb 11-18-2015

OK, I get that sin is an issue and I am despicable and Jesus is my only hope. God the Father loves me just as I am, but too much to let me stay that way.

However, I think about sin with the same ease as I do cancer. I either avoid it at all costs, or it becomes the center of my dark thoughts. I’m struggling with grasping the concept, and I hope someday I’ll arrive at the place where my theology and belief in a good God shelter me when I get the Tuesday afternoon call that the tumor is cancerous. The shit hits the fan, but I’m saved. Death is coming, but I’m unafraid.

I’m not there yet. It’s messy and anxiety-inducing. For each step I take forward in understanding the fall of humankind, my other foot takes a step toward grace that is so sweet and life-giving. I wouldn’t mind camping out at grace for awhile.

Joe Kay 10-29-2015

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I've had the privilege of participating in a church’s Trunk-or-Treat program for kids in a low-income neighborhood in Cincinnati. Folks bring their cars and vans to the church’s parking lot and decorate them. They hand out candy to the kids, who come dressed in their costumes. There’s food and hot chocolate and books, all for free.

One regular attendee is a little boy who has no legs, so his mom pushes him around the parking lot in a wheelchair. He loves to dress like a ninja and if you ask why, he’ll go on and on about how much he loves ninjas and his costume. And how much he loves Halloween.

The kids make the route around the parking lot a few times with their bags open, getting another piece of candy and a little bit of love at each stop. Everyone enjoys the giving and the getting.

Maybe that’s what I love most about Halloween.

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The Ashley Madison hack — the public release of emails of wannabe adulterers — has now ensnared a theologian with a famous name in some Christian circles.

Robert Craig Sproul Jr., best known by his first initials, stepped up Aug. 31 to face his sorrow — and teach a lesson in God’s grace in the process.

Joe Kay 8-10-2015

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Grace has a track record of showing up when we least expect it, touching us in ways we never imagined, urging us to do things we never thought possible. It leads us into unexpected relationships, points us toward new places, helps us get started on significant and much-needed changes. It fulfills us in ways that we never even knew we needed. It takes us to places we never imagined. Grace saves us, over and over. Sometimes, from ourselves. I suppose that’s why we fight grace so much. We love a certain amount of predictability and a feeling of control. We want to do things our way, in our time. We want to stay just as we are. 

That’s not the graceful way. 

Greg Williams 4-23-2015
Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.

When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.

I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.

Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.

Joe Kay 4-08-2015
Baseball. Image via Volt Collection/shutterstock.com

Baseball. Image via Volt Collection/shutterstock.com

A bunch of us writers were in Florida covering spring training a few years ago. Our sports editor took us out to dinner. During the conversation, she asked if we ever found ourselves pulling for a favorite player to do well — say, in the ninth inning of a dramatic comeback.

The response was unequivocal and unanimous. No! Never! Not in the ninth inning!

By the bottom of the ninth, the story is written. Ready to be sent out as soon as the game ends. A lot of hard work has gone into those sentences. The home team had eight entire innings to take the lead. Sorry. They had their chances. Now they should just lose quietly. Don’t mess up my story!

For the most part, sports writers hate dramatic comebacks. You have to hit the “delete” key on a lot of hard work. And then you frantically rewrite on deadline, which is the toughest type of writing.

Some time later, though — and this may not come until you’re driving home at 3 a.m. — you let your brain throttle back from hyper drive and say: Wow, that was pretty cool. Even though it drove my typing fingers crazy.

One of the best things about sports is that there’s always a chance for something grand at the end. Something that can take your prose away — and your breath away — in one unexpected moment.

Maybe that’s why fans — OK, and yeah, even sports writers — revel in those incredible finishes. They remind us of the sweetly unpredictable nature of our lives. And how in each of our lives, as Anne Lamott puts it: “Grace bats last.”

It’s true.

I’ve seen that ninth-inning comeback play out many times.

Timothy King 4-03-2015
Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock.com

Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock.com

Few people in my life would likely make the mistake of characterizing me as a naturally disciplined or pious person. Zealous, maybe. Pious, no. I’ve tended to live life in a passionate pursuit of a particular direction only to stumble, fall, get back up, and run a different way (not necessarily opposite, just different).

Thus, it has been an interesting experience for me this Lent to spend time reading, writing, and reflecting on discipline and ascetic practices. This stumbling and turning has often felt like an aimless back and forth, but in these weeks of reflection, it has been encouraging to look back and see growth. While the back and forth has been real, what has seemed like “just meanderings” have turned out to have some forward direction.

Father Richard Rohr gives this encouragement, “The steps to maturity are, by their very nature, immature.”

As we look back, each step behind us is going to seem immature, maybe even like a mistake. Hitting our head and saying “God, I was such an idiot back then,” is evidence of grace at work in our lives. The ability to see the ways we failed that were invisible to us at the time, is a sign of our growth in wisdom and discernment. This is often hard for me to accept.

Jason Byassee 3-09-2015

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle B. 

Joe Kay 12-15-2014
A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com

A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com

Figures in nativity scenes are pretty weird, aren't they? This is true of most manger scenes, whether we’re talking about the ceramic one under a tree or the statuesque one in a church or the plastic one on a lawn. First off, there’s Mary, always looking very fresh and calm and full of reflection — which is quite impressive considering that she just gave birth without any sedative. Then there’s Joseph, doing some kind of man-thing off to the side — holding a lantern or a large stick. He looks totally composed, too.

And there’s the baby Jesus with a full head of hair, wide-open eyes and arms outstretched like he’s ready to belt out a song.

Not to ruin anyone’s Christmas spirit here, but what the heck?

If our manger scenes were realistic, Mary would be recovering from a painful labor full of sweat and blood, with a look on her face that’s anything but serene. And Joseph — wouldn’t he be a nervous wreck, too? His hand too shaky to hold a lantern?

And about that newborn. Shouldn’t he be red-faced and screaming? Eyes clenched closed and wisps of hair stuck to the top of a head that‘s still odd-shaped from all the squeezing?

Instead, we’ve sanitized and romanticized it. We’ve removed all the blood and sweat and tears and pain and goo. It’s no longer something real. We’ve left out all the messy parts. The oh-my-God-what-now parts. The I’m-screaming-as-loud-as-I-can-because-it-really-hurts parts. The oh-no-I’ve-stepped-in-the-animal-droppings parts. 

The real parts.

Joe Kay 10-01-2014
Image by Jomayra Soto / via Creationswap.com

Image by Jomayra Soto / via Creationswap.com

It’s interesting how the word “grace” gets used a lot, even by those who don’t necessarily consider themselves religious. It’s a favorite name for a character that represents someone who is a gift to us — I’m thinking about Bruce’s girlfriend Grace in Bruce Almighty, or Eli’s reassuring encounter with a woman named Grace in the second season of the TV series Eli Stone.

You can probably cite many more examples of characters named Grace in different movies, television shows, and books.

We like to put flesh-and-blood on the notion that we are recipients of some great gift that arrives unexpectedly and is given freely. Someone or something that comes into our life and significantly changes it for the better in some ways.

But what is grace? Who is grace to us?

Cindy Brandt 8-18-2014
via CreationSwap.com

via CreationSwap.com

It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.

Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.

Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.

I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.

I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.

I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.

It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.

Christian Piatt 8-11-2014

Mark Driscoll preaching. Courtesy Mars Hill Church Seattle, via Flickr.

This week has been a rough one for Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Following one scandal after another, the Acts 29 Network – which he helped found – removed his standing and his church’s standing within the network. They also encouraged him to step down as the leader of Mars Hill.

To add to that, Lifeway Bookstores, which is one of the biggest faith-based book chains around, decided to stop carrying all of Driscoll’s books. Basically this just means he can join me and all of us progressive Christian authors who have been edged out by Lifeway. You’ll get used to it, Mark.

All of this is good for Christianity as a whole. For starters, it demonstrates the autonomy of the Acts 29 Network from their founder. And despite their many misguided policies regarding women and their proclivity for hyper-calvinism overall, it shows that they, too, have their limits.

As for Lifeway, I can’t really tell if their decision to drop Driscoll is an ethical one, or a matter of mitigating further PR risk by having his titles in their stores. Either way, props for getting his face off the shelves, regardless.

I’d not be surprised, too, if Driscoll chooses to step down from Mars Hill in the near future. At some point, even he will recognize his leadership as untenable.

In the midst of all of this, I’m conflicted. 

Joe Kay 8-11-2014
MJTH / Shutterstock.com

MJTH / Shutterstock.com

I was privileged to attend the ordination of a friend recently. For the first time, Michelle got to say the blessing over the bread, to break the bread and to give it to all of us with her hands.

Many tears, much joy.

As she handed me a small piece of the bigger loaf, I was reminded of how we, like the communion bread, are in the hands of others for so much of our lives. And how religion can be a thing of so much good or so much pain, depending upon whose hands it is in.

In the right hands, it’s a pathway to the divine. In the wrong hands …

It’s important that we always differentiate between religion and God. The two are distinct. God is always much bigger than any and all of our religions.

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