The Gift is not Grace Kelly
Every time I teach, I learn. So it was this weekend when I was in the middle of a talk on Loaded Words. I was telling the story of a dear friend who had come to faith about the same time as me. She had fallen in love with our church community and served it in all sorts of unique and wonderful ways. She had loved the feeling of community, of relationships, of belonging, of family, and of the mystery of the good God at the center of it all. She especially loved the Holy Spirit. But as I’ve gone deeper, it became clear to me that she’d been making an end run around the tough stuff: sin, repentance, confession, judgment—all the hard, mean-sounding words that keep people in the culture away from the church and far too many in the church from anything like real spiritual maturity.
How does this happen? How does someone spend 20 years as an active member of a good Lutheran church, with sound teaching and preaching, and only lick the frosting? This was the question I posed to the workshop attendees on Friday, but it wasn’t until I was back at the hotel that I had clarity on the answer.
It’s Grace’s fault.
People, I suspect, are making the mistake of misfiling “Grace” in their minds with the happy, easy words. You know the ones I mean: Love, Joy, Hope, Peace, Community. It is not hard to hear these words in a sermon. In fact, for many, these warm, fuzzy words are what the church is all about. And although these words have deep theological meanings, and are tied to the gifts and promises of God in ways that are not always happy and easy, they still mean, for the most part, what they mean out in the world.
Not so with Grace.
Grace does not belong in the grouping of happy, easy words. Grace belongs in the “sin” family. And it may just be hardest word of all. Because as C. S. Lewis tells us, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” If we allow ourselves to hear the word Grace as an easy, happy word, we avoid the humiliation of “losing” our precious claim to being our own God. When the pastor says “grace,” people can opt instead to register something beautiful and glowing, nimble and lithe. They can imagine the Grace of God as giving them an ease to their step, and a light all around them. They can picture the gift of Grace as something that will lead them to walk through the world a bit like—well, you know who— with doors opening, and heads nodding and smiling, as if some beautiful new ambassador of Jesus has arrived. I’m beginning to suspect that a lot more people than we know are thinking of Grace as some sort of holy moisturizer that plumps their cells with goodness from the outside.
Sorry. But if that’s your understanding, you’ve got the wrong Grace.
Grace is a word you need to find down in the basement with the other hard words. Down in the basement after a flood and the mold’s begun to settle in. Down in the basement with the stagnant water and the mold and now the rats moving in, gnawing and breeding. This is where Grace speaks. Here, where all the darkest parts of ourselves—the resentments, the envy, the pride, the ambition, the lust and the fear—all the snark in the pit of our souls standing naked in the muck and taunting God. “See, you got me all wrong.” Only then can God give us these glorious words of mercy and affirmation: “Nope, you got Me all wrong.”
This is Grace. And we find it in the same place it was first offered us by Christ: in the wretched, gasping, flesh-and-blood center, where He calls us to himself and then raises us up with Him, moving the word Grace down from the basement and up to the glorious light on the highest shelf with all the other easy, happy words. Now you can place it there, next to Love and Joy and Peace and Hope. Now you can wear this Grace like the Princes or Princesses you are, in the royal priesthood that God has called each of us to.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
As we teach and share and help each other along the way, let’s make sure folks get the Grace God intended.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2: 1-10)