Grace

Grace Bats Last

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.

'I Was an Idiot' as a Sign of Grace

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.

Easter and a Love Supreme

DURING THE EASTER SEASON, the first reading in our lectionary becomes, strangely, a New Testament reading. Most of the year, we immerse ourselves in the scripture we share with the Jews, but after the resurrection we traipse through the book of Acts. The claim being made is that the history of God’s chosen people continues in the history of the church. God is still working signs and wonders. And these include the sharing of goods in common, the fact that there are no needy people among us, bringing awe and distress among our neighbors, and a dawning kingdom brought slightly closer. Just like in our churches and communities today, right?

These Easter texts are also deeply sensual and material. God’s reign is imagined as a banquet with rich wines and marrow-filled meats. Love between sisters and brothers is like oil running down the head, over the face. The resurrection texts themselves insist on this point more emphatically than any other: Jesus is raised in his body. This is the beginning of God’s resurrecting power breaking out all over the creation God loves. What could ever be impossible after a resurrection? Our limited imaginations of the possible (Can we make budget? Can we get a few more votes on this bill? Can we improve lives in this neighborhood?) are shown for the bankruptcy in which they are mired. A new order is here. We pray, God, make our imaginations match the sensuousness, the materiality, the grandeur of what you have already accomplished and, more daringly still, what you promise yet to do.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[April 5]

Food Porn or Heavenly Banquet?
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

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Why Are Manger Scenes So Weird?

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.

And That Is Grace ...

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?

What Saved My Faith

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.

God Isn't Punishing Mark Driscoll

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. 

Religion, in the Right Hands

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.

Why I Accept Mark Driscoll's Apology ... And You Should Too

Pastor Mark Driscoll says he’s sorry for inappropriate comments made in 2000. Photo: Mars Hill Church Seattle/Flickr

Well, we’ve just concluded another week in American evangelicalism. Which is to say, we’ve witnessed another Mark Driscoll blunder.

This has for sure been a rough year for the Seattle-based mega-church preacher. He was accused of plagiarizing in multiple books, which resulted in a tepid but public apology. He embarrassed himself by crashing a conference hosted by another pastor, John MacArthur. And former staff and church members spoke out about the oppressive environment at Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church. These gaffes join a legion of others. After the flood of criticism he received, Driscoll quit social media and has retreated from the public eye.

But another shoe dropped last week when Christian author Matthew Paul Turner posted a series of discussion board comments by Driscoll under the alias “William Wallace II” in 2000. Driscoll’s opinions, though 14 years old, were nothing short of vile. In addition to being expletive-laden, they were misogynistic and homophobic (and I do not use either term lightly).

In response to the furor his comments created, Pastor Driscoll apologized yet again, saying his statements were “plain wrong” and he “remains embarrassed” by them. His apology was predictably rejected by the growing gaggle of Driscoll critics, a group that has become evermore vampirical in their thirst for Driscoll’s blood. But I accept Driscoll’s apology and other Christians should too.

Possible Grace

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

WHAT’S A GOOD priest for? So asks Calvary, the second feature film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, rooting itself in Ireland’s coastal landscape, centering on a pastor threatened with scapegoat-retributive murder from a grievously sinned-against parishioner. Its vibe owes a great deal to the quiet reflection of films such as Jesus of Montreal and Au Hasard Balthazar (in which a donkey evokes the love and wounds of Christ), and the archetypal Westerns High Noon and Unforgiven. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who was drawn into the church after his wife’s death, which allows us the rare experience of seeing a cinematic Catholic priest who is both a parent to his flock and to a beloved daughter, who feels somewhat abandoned by his commitment to the church.

Gleeson has the uncanny ability to hold his massive frame as both solid—almost concrete—and vulnerable. Knowing that everyone is both broken and breaker, his Father James is healing on behalf of a flawed institution, although he doesn’t confuse vocation with a job. His bishop’s response to a request for help is “I’m not saying anything,” reminding me of Daniel Berrigan’s challenge to religious hierarchies, heard at a public meeting in Dublin in the run-up to the Iraq war: “In Vietnam, they had nothing to say, and said nothing; now, they have nothing to say, and they’re saying it.”

Father James understands the difference between stewarding power and grabbing it (one obvious signal of his goodness), and he is up to his neck in the community, running the gamut from friendship with an American writer looking for inspiration in the land of his presumed ancestors to a visit with a former pupil whose own inner darkness has led him to do monstrous things.

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