“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
Agnes Sanford was born in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. As an adult she made her home in New Jersey as the wife of an Episcopalian rector. She is known worldwide for her approach to healing through prayer—a process that is uncomplicated and very confident of God’s loving power to heal. She does not concern herself with complex questions of creed, denomination, or belief structure. Her approach is Christ-centered and church-centered. Throughout her life, she taught widely in many settings, and was the instrument of many healings.
Her most-acclaimed book, The Healing Light, has been in continuous publication since 1947, selling over half a million copies. In this book Sanford compares the power of God to the power of electricity—”the whole universe is full of it, but only the amount of it that flows through…will work.”
Her recommendations on how to pray are exceedingly practical and down to earth. She recommends that we conduct experiments in prayer not to put God to the test but to put our own wavering faith to the test. She knows that we are afraid to ask God for things because we are afraid of being disappointed. Her teachings have gently guided millions— over decades, continents, and worldviews— to exercise their faith in a simple yet disciplined way.
(Artwork from the Dancing Saints Icon Project, S.F, CA)
“In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.”
— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
The story of my trip to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitestone, New York this past week actually began almost four years ago on my trip to Taize. One of the ways they raise funds in Taize is through the sale of ceramics and art; they accept no donations from anyone, as it is their belief that they should trust in their own ability to support their monastic lifestyle and rely on nothing by God’s provision to help them. I bought this necklace while I was there: the deep well of blue just spoke to my heart.But this story begins not with the blue but with the plain, white, unfinished back of the large teardrop pendant and with the verse that came with it.
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Revelation 2:17
I met Pastor Johnson Rethinasamy at a conference in Phoenix last year, right after Leann and I had started icktank. She had heard him in a session and ran to find me: Heather, you’ve got to hear what this guy is talking about.What he was talking about was his life story and how God was blessing him and the community in which he’d been placed. He’d arrived in NYC fifteen years ago with his wife, Sharon, and young daughter, Susan, and a plan to get his doctorate in Missions work in Tamil, India. He had the proverbial $10 in his pocket when he stumbled across a little Lutheran church. He wandered in and asked if they might need an organist: they did, and offered to pay him $25 a week to play. He soon developed a relationship with the pastor who discovered that he was not just an immigrant musician, but actually an ordained Lutheran pastor in India, where Lutheranism had existed long before it had come to America. He was soon colloquized (made official) in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and empowered to start an mission outreach to southeast Asians newly arrived in Queens. He quickly built up a storefront church to well over 100 people.
Just when it seemed that life was starting to make sense, he got the Call. A small traditional, old German Lutheran church—which could be called “stagnant” at best— wanted him to become their pastor. He wasn’t sure what God wanted him to do. He prayed, of course, but also, he spoke to his growing tribe of new and old immigrant Christians and said this, “I will only go if you come with me. This is how we begin to address the call to multi-culturalism in the faith in America. This is how we become one in the Kingdom of God.”
Half of the people said no; they wanted to stay there and be with “their own kind.” I love this because it reminds us that parochialism and cliquishness and comfort zones know no bounds. But half of the immigrants said yes, as did a good portion of the traditional German Lutherans at an old church which, when faced with the prospect of dying, said no: Christ will continue to live on in this place and we will simply need to learn to open our hearts, to let in the new, to stop being so worried about being comfortable and having things the way they’ve always been. And so the Mosaic ministry that is Immanuel Lutheran Church was born.
Now, do you remember where I said it was? In a town in Queens called Whitestone. At some point last year I had connected the dots from the Taize necklace scripture to this new, far-off community that was somehow becoming part of my story, and of the icktank story. In January, Pastor Johnson wrote to tell us that he would be doing our new book Loaded Words for an all-church Lenten study. We were honored and thrilled and I began to consider that I would actually make a trip there. The white stone pendant hung over my desk, an ever-present reminder of the mysteries of God and how he speaks to His people.
What I saw and did and heard and learned on my visit to the community in Whitestone made it clear that the Holy Spirit was alive and well and moving in and around us like the sweet spiced scent of curry. I felt as at home in the church and in their small group gatherings as I ever have in any church I’ve ever been in.I met brilliant Indian men who wanted to see their wives lifted up, who served their church and the Kingdom of God with joy, even after long days as high-level IT execs or managers. I wept with a man whose daughter had died suddenly of an infection she got in hospital after a routine procedure: she was just 21, and he spoke of her testimony and how she saw angels all around her and how she spent the few brief final hours she had of this life witnessing to Christ for the doctors and nurses who tended to her. I listened to a man who drove in every weekend from Connecticut to assist with the music: he had had a profound and personal experience of the Living God calling him, and gave up his corporate job and his comfortable life and now writes Christian music and helps to plant churches and shares with his family the piercing joy of relying on God alone for their provision. And I smiled to hear the testimony of a man who might best be described as a Central Casting version of a working class New Yorker. He had not been raised in the church–not really. For two years he had walked past Immanuel and considered going in, until, one morning he said to his wife “Get dressed. We’re going to church.” And as they approached the building he grew terrified at the thought of walking into a space filled with strangers. This was his greatest fear. Until he opened the door, and there on the left side of the pews was a guy he used to work with at Home Depot. And there handing out the bulletins was another guy he’d grown up with. And Pastor Johnson, who’d often greeted him in town, embraced him by name. And he told me, “God knew my fear and he put all those people there so I never felt like a stranger. I haven’t missed a Sunday since. And this church has become for me a true home.”
It is often said the Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but not in Whitestone, where Tamil and Hindi and Chinese and German and English all come together as one. Some of the services are mixed, and led in English. Some are purely in Tamil and/or Hindi, allowing the immigrants to hear God in their own mother tongue while still being part of a new church family. Pastor Johnson oversees them all, the flock and the local pastors who he’s raised up, trained, seen through ordination, and continues to mentor and supervise. On Sunday morning, he communed close to 200 people in three services and called them their God-given name as he offered them the Body of Christ, broken for them for the forgiveness of sins. Over the course of the morning I sang old Lutheran hymns and new contemporary Christian songs and Indian liturgical chants and words I knew and words I simply let wash over me. And I was blessed to see and feel and hear what it looks like when we get it right: when we yield to the will of the God who tells us that Christ died “once for all” (Romans 6:10). That we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:8). And that we are, indeed, “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).
As for the ties to the Scripture from Revelation and my seemingly “meant-to-be” visit to Whitestone, well, I’m not sure I was actually given anything as clear as a new name.
Or was I?
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)