Here we are at week 2 in our Elephant in the Pew series. Let’s start by thinking of the many gifts/blessings that God has given us. Let’s name them – How has God blessed you, what gifts has God given to you?
Today, we are talking about another true gift from God….. Grace – forgiveness of our sins, compassion, kindness, unconditional love, wholeness. God often sends a messenger – a stranger, a friend, a colleague – to be the bearer of grace in our lives. Grace is one of those categories that it is hard to say….that is grace, or this is a perfect example of grace. It’s much easier to identify/see after the fact, and even then it can be a bit mysterious and slippery. Many (all?) of these things we have not earned, maybe don’t even deserve, but God has blessed us with them anyways.
As we heard in our readings a few minutes ago, there are also several other terms/words that usually get paired with “grace” that it might be helpful if we define them.
One of my favorite authors is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran ordained pastor who is also a recovering alcoholic. She is outspoken, blunt, and even raw at times in how she preaches the Gospel. She, like each of us, is proof that God chooses often the broken to be the best spokespersons for the Gospel and Grace. Nadia’s writings and sermons are deep and extremely thoughtful. I can, too often, see myself reflected in what she has to say – especially the parts where she struggles to be faithful to God’s call. She has several sermons on Grace, and I would like share some of her thoughts on what Grace to her/for us.
Nadia says, “God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word… it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own mess. Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail, then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - and say, ‘Oh, its OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new’” (quotable quotes: Bolz-Weber - Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/958748-god-s-grace-is-not-defined-as-god-being-forgiving-to).
That sounds a lot like what we talked about last week from The Shack. We, humans, in our acts of “independence” often do things that harm ourselves, others, and our planet. When tragedy strikes, we often ask “Why God? Why did this have to happen? Why didn’t you stop it or prevent it from happening at all?” Grace is God’s response. As Papa says in The Shack: I do not make bad decisions, hurts, and horrible tragedies happen; yes, I could have prevented them, but I respect your independence and work within your parameters. I am able to bring good from those same bad decisions, hurts, and tragedies. The pain and suffering is not the final answer. My love and grace is.
Another one of Nadia’s perspectives is that: “Grace helps me to recognize that I have bad vision. Grace is a lens through which I can look through to see myself and others - through this beautiful pure love of God. I don’t have to create this lens, God creates it. The beauty is that nothing else can tell me who I am, who others are. Just God alone – not the world around us, not other people, just God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
We all have “bad vision” as Nadia says. We all have let the media, social media, advertising, and others tell us who we are, how we are supposed to be, whether or not we are successful, and what it takes to be successful and stay that way.
Nadia goes on to say that “this is why we have the Christian community – because we are great forgetters. We forget that it is God alone that can tell us who we truly are and who God is – not the world and people around us. In some ways,” she says, “Christian communities are places of de-programming, where we go to remove the programming that the world tries to fill us with about our true identity and about God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
It takes regular practice to start to “recognize” and see God’s grace, Margaret Felice says. “The first step is getting out of yourself, to stop focusing only on your own concerns, and by simply observing the world around us.” She says, “I am more likely to be gobsmacked by grace at a random moment during the day than to experience it deeply during times of intentional prayer” but it is important to be intentional and “disciplined about making time for prayers so to balance the two opportunities of finding God in the everyday” (Rossi).
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany says, Grace “in its most fundamental sense, is the gift of God’s own self. God is free to give us graces in various modes or forms and every kind of grace offered, if freely accepted – which is always necessary – draws the receiver into the very life and mystery of God. The real gift is when we spot those moments as they happen, aware of God’s presence in the day-to-day moments of our lives” (Rossi).
So, if Grace is a lens through which we can begin to see our true selves, and the truth of each other and our world, then –
What is God trying to show you, tell you about yourself?
As Felice mentioned, it takes regular practice to start to recognize God’s presence, God’s grace in hindsight, and even more to truly see and feel it in the moment. It is in Christian Community that we learn these skills and can see the gift of God’s presence and grace in our lives on a regular basis. Sometimes, ok - often, we need others to point out where God has “shown-up” for us, or where we need to “let go” to get out of our own way and God’s way.
I leave you with these questions today:
Together, may our “Grace Lenses” become clearer and more focused. May we learn to be more attuned to God’s presence and movement in our lives. And, with the help of God and each other, may we allow ourselves to be transformed more closely to the image we were created to be – bearers of God’s grace and love.
May it be so…… AMEN
Bolz-Weber, Nadia – quotes and comments from resources as listed above.
Rossi, Tony, blog posting “Opening Yourself to God’s Grace.” https://www.patheos.com/ blogs/christophers/2016/01/opening-yourself-to-gods-grace/
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Romans 3:22b-24 and 5:1-2
3 22For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Results of Justification
5 1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Today, we start our “Elephant in the Pew” series, and our first topic is a heavy one – one that troubles many of us: Why do bad (horrible) things happen to good people, especially innocent children?
So, let’s start there – Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
Unfortunately, nowhere in scripture does God promise that we will NOT experience bad things, or be victims of horrible incidents. What God does promise to always be with us through it all.
Do bad things ever happen to bad people?
Maybe we need to think about how we define “good” and “bad”.
Our definition of good and bad is pretty subjective. It seems like it’s up to each person to decide for themselves. So what happens when something we perceive as “good” turns out to be “bad” for us and vice-versa?
That upsets our entire understanding of how things are supposed to be. I mean – do you think you could ever see cancer or murder as something good? No probably not, but good can come from it.
Our perception of “good” and “bad” is a moving target. And to make things worse, there are billions of people each determining what is good and what is bad (evil). And when our good and bad clashes with our neighbor’s, fights and argument ensue and even wars break out (Young, p135). The root of our problem is “judging” without truly knowing the other, the circumstance, and seeing things only as one way – good or bad – as an “either/or” situation rather than even holding onto the possibility of there being a “both/and” option.
Yet, we know that the “both/and” option already exists. Scientists say that red wine is “good” for your heart, yet we know that too much of it, is ultimately “bad” for your health. Or, losing a job/home is “bad,” yet it can force us to look for new opportunities, try something we never even thought of previously, and maybe even finding out that life is even better than what we had before.
When I saw this question on my list, my mind went directly to the book, and now movie, “The Shack” by William P. Young. Have you ever read the book or watched the movie?
It is thoughtfully written in a Jewish “midrash” kind of tradition where a person explores, and writes into the “gaps,” created by the scriptures and additional texts available, in order to “fill in the story.” As I was reading the book again, while preparing for this message, I was struck by the imagery of God and the words describing the Trinity, God’s actions and God’s purpose for us – humanity.
If you have never read the book or watched the movie, you should. It really makes you stop and think about how we perceive God and our response to God. It helped me realize that I still have a small perspective of God – try to keep God in a nice and tidy box, which is just ridiculous – and how much I am missing out on my relationship with God and in life because I have never fully explored who God is and what I was created to be. This story is definitely worth revisiting on a regular basis. It’s a great inroad for meditation. Through this story, God invites you to enter into a deeper knowing, a co-union with God’s self.
Another great reason to read this book, or watch the movie, is the core of the story itself. The story is about one man’s (Mack’s) deep struggle to come to terms with the loss of his 6-yr-old daughter, who was abducted and killed by a serial killer. Like so many of us, Mack’s story reveals how he “believed” in God, right up to the point that he felt God failed him and his daughter – because God didn’t stop something horrific from happening.
Mack’s relationship with God is very “broken,” and in his grief, he challenges God, accuses God of abandoning him and his daughter, and even goes so far as to judge God guilty and to blame for what happened.
Sound familiar? Has something like that ever happened to you or someone you know? When tragedy strikes, too often our faith is shaken, maybe even shattered rather than deepened. We turn away.
God’s response is to invite Mack to spend a weekend together, to get to know God deeply, to truly understand what really caused of all his pain, and to seek healing.
At the heart of this story is Mack’s – our – understanding of God.
This story and our question for today also stems from our understanding of “free will” – our ability to choose for ourselves what is right and wrong for us.
Sarayu (Spirit) tells Mack that our problems started when humanity chose independence (free will) over a relationship, co-union, with God. It all began when Eve pulled the apple from the tree and she and Adam ate of it, believing they knew better than God what was right for them. That choice to eat from the tree of knowledge tore the universe apart, divorcing the spiritual from the physical (Young, p135).
Since that fateful event, humanity has been on a path that has separated us from love, believing we could independently discern what was right or wrong, good or evil, attempting to play God – believing that we can prevent or control bad things from happening.
“When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other,” Sarayu says to Mack. “Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want. In a self-centered world,” she says, “it is the excuse to inflict pain on others” (Young, p123).
“And with authority, there comes the need for rules/laws and someone to enforce them,” said Jesus. Thus creating an opportunity for abuse and the infliction of pain and suffering. “That’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,” Jesus said (Young, p122).
As a result of our human experiences, our trust in the goodness of God has been set aside. Instead, we too often see God as either testing us, punishing us, or even worse, as unconcerned, uninterested, or even ambivalent to our pain and suffering, to our need.
At one point over that magical weekend, Mack is given the opportunity to judge God and humanity. He is told that he must decide who is responsible for all the pain and suffering in his life, in the world, and who should be punished for it. In that moment, Mack finally is able to vent some of his anger at God, but he also must face that his anger at God is the safer option than the blame he has placed on himself, the crushing guilt he wears as a heavy blanket for not being there to protect his daughter.
As the weekend visit with God unfolds, Mack discovers who God truly is. He realizes that his “image” or understanding of who God is wrong and needs to change. As often happens when we are face-to-face with those who have hurt us, or those whom we deem our “enemies,” we often learn that we have more in common than we thought; that they aren’t the evil we made them out to be in our heads. We must reframe our image of them. Yet, our pre-conceived notions run deep and are often hard to change – especially when we have been deeply hurt. In our pain, we too often assume the worst of God (Young, 176) and we place the blame of our hurt not only on the perpetrator, but on God for not preventing the event in the first place.
Mack finally sees and accepts that God is not to blame for what happened to his young daughter. In a conversation with Jesus, he asks the final and ultimate question….. “Why did this horrible act have to happen to my daughter?” Jesus replies that it didn’t have to happen. “Did she have to die so you could change me?” Mack asks Papa. “Whoa! That’s not how I do things” Papa quickly replies. “Stories about a person willing to exchange their life for another are a golden thread in your world, revealing both your need and my heart” Papa said. “But I wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t died,” Mack states. “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That line of thinking only leads to false notions about me” Papa replied (Young, p183).
The death of Mack’s young daughter happened as a result of the choices – the independence – one human exercised. Choices that we all are faced with and make each and every day. Choices that too often can result in inflicting pain on others rather than seeking to help, uplift or love.
Then Jesus tells Mack that God was with his daughter through her horrible ordeal. That she was never alone, through any of it, and that she knew she wasn’t. She knew God’s peace and comfort (Young, p173).
My friends, this is what we all want to hear and believe – that no matter how badly we “mess up” or the bad choices we make, God will not abandon us, nor will God punish us for our actions. “Sin is punishment enough” said Papa (Young, p120). Rather, Papa tells Mack, “You (humanity) were created to be loved. So, to live as if you were unloved is a limitation. It’s like clipping a bird’s wings and removing it’s ability to fly. Pay has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly. Pain, if left unresolved for very long, can almost make you forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place” (Young, p97).
In Young’s book, we hear the Triune-God say that in order for us to find true peace and happiness, we must “re-turn” to God. We must let go of our own ideas of control, of being able to discern or judge right from wrong, and to let go of the need for power, authority over others and everything, and to seek/submit ourselves to a loving relationship – a co-union – with God (Young, p147).
By re-turning to God, and fully engaging in the circle of God’s love, we place our total trust in God’s will for us and God’s innate goodness. From that relationship and place of comfort and security, we are able to face all the challenges, disappointments, pain and suffering that life can dish out because we know that God is with us through it all.
How is your relationship with God?
Are you ready to take it to the next level?
God is inviting you to re-turn and enter the true circle of life
May it be so……AMEN
Young, William P., “The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.” Windblown Media/Los Angeles, CA, 2007.
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.