Grace

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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Seattle Pacific Shooting Hero Hopes Shooter Finds 'the Grace of God'

Jon Meis, the first person to respond to the campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University, released a statement thanking other early responders this morning. During the June 5 shooting, Meis tackled the suspect and used pepper spray to subdue him. In his statement published by KIRO news, Meis requested that all further donations be given to the victims through Seattle Pacific. He laments the necessity of a tragedy to make a hero and encouraged all to meet hate with love:

However, what I find most difficult about this situation is the devastating reality that a hero cannot come without tragedy. In the midst of this attention, we cannot ignore that a life was taken from us, ruthlessly and without justification or cause. Others were badly injured, and many more will carry this event with them the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, I would encourage that hate be met with love. When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man. While I cannot at this time find it within me to forgive his crime, I truly desire that he will find the grace of God and the forgiveness of our community.

Sacrament as Subversion

The power of the sacraments is in the faith of the individual and the grace of God. Magdalena Kucova/Shutterstock.com

Anyone who thinks much on theology will tell you that you go through patterns of thought. For a long time, I was intrigued — and still am in many ways — by the notion of Jesus as a “third way” prophet, offering something different than both church and secular culture most of the time. As I learned of different interpretations of the crucifixion, I became obsessed with nonviolent activism, and the idea of responding to force or bloodshed with something else entirely.

Now, my latest mental track is sacrament. I am interested in what makes something a sacrament, yes, but also in the power connected to sacraments and what human beings do with that power.

I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has Alexander Campbell as part of its roots. Campell was notorious for supposedly causing a stir in his local church around the sacrament of communion. At that time, the Church handed out tokens to those it deemed worthy to participate in communion. No token? No communion. So this one particular day, Campbell entered the church with his token in hand, but when they offered the elements to him, he refused, tossing the token on the ground and walking out. He went on to help start the Disciples based, in large part, on the concept of the open communion table.

New & Noteworthy

Reading Power
Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More advises on everything from basic setup to navigating challenging topics. By educational psychologist and girls’ empowerment advocate Lori Day, with her daughter, Charlotte Kugler. Chicago Review Press

Slices of Life
Fresh on the heels of an essay collection (The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, Loyola Press), Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle now offers prose poems that capture prayers, piercing insights, and luminous moments with craft and frequent wit in A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance. Liturgical Press

Being There
The Parish Collective is a North American network of groups and churches striving to be deeply rooted in and shaped by their neighborhoods. Collective co-founders Paul Sparks and Tim Soerens and professor Dwight J. Friesen offer what they’ve learned in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community. IVP Books

Ordinary Grace
Critically acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s newest album, A Permeable Life, strives to be, she writes, “radically uncynical and fearlessly hopeful ... a gritty kind of hope.” Her rich voice and intelligent lyrics explore themes of finding the sacred in the everyday and the art of presence. Available Light

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What Type of God Do You Believe In?

Young man doubting, Asier Romero / Shutterstock.com

Young man doubting, Asier Romero / Shutterstock.com

Sometimes it's hard to blame people for rejecting God, because many Christians present a God that is ugly, cruel, unfair, and utterly horrific. Thus, when people avoid Christianity, they're actually shunning their ugly perception of it.

When you hear people talk about God, what type of God are you imagining? When you speak of God, what type of God are you communicating?

Unfortunately, society's obsession with success, politics, business, security, wealth, and comfort has hijacked the way we see and interpret God — even Christians are guilty of this.

It's easy to manipulate God to fit our own agendas, to use religion to rationalize our actions, to wield spirituality as a weapon, and manipulate theology to rationalize our sins.

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