Friday, October 31, 2014

Don’t hit me! Resurrecting real grace & giving faith more than a ghost of a chance

When I was a kid I loved to go to the local YMCA. My dad’s boss, Mr. Meek, would buy memberships to the Y for the families of his employers, an incredibly kind gift. As a member, I could get my buddies in for a small fee. We would head there many weekends and weekdays over the summer.

Besides swimming, there was a room full of table games like foosball, ping-pong, and whatnot. One day while standing idly in the game room, someone tapped me on the shoulder saying, “Hey, buddy!”

When I turned around -- Pow! -- I was punched firmly in the jaw and went down. I think I may even have been out for a couple of moments and saw a star or two.

The kid who hit me took off with his buddies, laughing. Kind of like Scut Farkus and his sidekick Grover Dill in “A Christmas Story,” minus the humor.

I didn’t know the kid, but had seen him around and knew he had an air of “ill repute.” He wasn’t the kind of guy I would have chosen to hang with.

The experience drained a little of the fun out of going to the Y. From that moment on, I was always on my guard.

The Y lost a good bit of its attraction.

Grace misspelled as O-U-T-R-A-G-E-!

A few days ago I was scrolling through posts in a Facebook group consisting of people who grew up as I did in the Assemblies of God (AOG). Someone shared a link to an article posted in an AOG online magazine asking if this article was “concerning to anyone.”

The article was titled, “Desires in conflict: Hope and healing for individuals struggling with same-sex attraction,” and subtitled, “Practical tips for those who find themselves in a position to help people struggling with same-sex attraction.”

The conclusion of the article issued a call for gentle grace:
“In closing, it is important to remind ourselves that sin has damaged and broken everyone’s sexuality — not just those who struggle with same-sex attraction or a disordered sexual identity. The sin of Adam and Eve affects every aspect of our creation and existence. No one escapes the effects of the Fall. No part of the human existence remains untouched....When defending our scriptural stance and interpretation regarding serious issues, let us be careful to not further damage the hurting and broken seekers and instead offer the good news of Jesus Christ with compassion and love.”

How did those in the Facebook group react to this article?

Most were certain Satan was at the helm of the AOG. A comment by a woman named, ironically, Joy, sums up the general consensus of responses: “Yikes! ‘Concerned’ sounds like such a mild reaction in this context! I need something more like ‘outraged’!”

So much for grace.

I don’t mean to beat up on the AOG or any specific group who adheres to biblical Christian faith.

We all have skin in the blame.

A person walks into a church and...

Church, religion, Christians, evangelical are all becoming bad words, and we who fit these labels wonder why.

We shouldn’t.

In his new book, Vanishing Grace: Whatever happened to the Good News?, Philip Yancey references  surveys by Ellison Research of Phoenix that indicate 36% of Americans have no idea “what an evangelical Christian is,” a mere 35% believe they know “someone very well who is an evangelical,” and  51% are certain they don’t know any evangelicals at all.

But these same people still have a clear opinion about evangelical Christians. Not that we Christians would hold opinions about others we don’t know.

Yancey quotes the president of the research company who stated, “Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that’s just a partial list....Some people don’t have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe — they just know they can’t stand evangelicals.”

Frankly, a lot of evangelicals can’t stand evangelicals, but that’s fodder for a different blog post.

A lot of believers are certain we possess “sin-dar” as we attribute a plethora of bad thoughts and behaviors onto those around us.

Or we stand inside the doors of our churches as if the entrances are equipped with sin scanners waiting for them to beep as “those” people walk in. When the alarm sounds -- Bam! -- we knock them down by the power of the Spirit and beat the hell out of them, figuratively speaking of course. They’re not sure what hit them, or why.

Somehow this just doesn’t fit with Jesus’ invitation to “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, ESV).

Seek first to understand

So what do we do to fix this?

Yancey says, “To communicate to post-Christians, [we] must first listen to their stories for clues as to how they view the world and how they view people like [us].” We need to find a way to move beyond being “perceived more as guilt dispensers than as grace dispensers.”

He found a clue for doing this when he spent a day with Henri Nouwen who had spent time in San Francisco working in hospitals with AIDS patients.

“I’m a priest,” explained Nouwen, “and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories.” As he heard story after story recounting promiscuity, addiction, and other self-destructive behavior, what Nouwen picked up on was a theme hinting of a “thirst for love that had never been quenched.”

He told Yancey that his perspective changed and his prayer for others became, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

Yancey’s new book is rooted in a prior book, What’s so Amazing About Grace, that concludes with this thought: “The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.”

Given that the labels above (psychos, racist, bigots, delusional, freaks, etc.) applied to evangelicals are often applied by evangelicals to those “outside the fold,” sitting down at the table together is going to be tough.

As one person stated, “We’re suspicious of one another. So we start off with a grudge.”

Still, explains Yancey, “For true dialogue to occur, we must cut through those stereotypes and genuinely consider the other’s point of view. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Smacking people upside the head with a Bible is not grace. Being outraged toward others is not loving them. These are failed and polarizing tactics, to say the least.

As Yancey says, “I’ve yet to meet someone who found their way to faith by being criticized.” Or, we can add, by being bludgeoned.

Moving from overt obnoxiousness to subversive grace

Yancey’s book consists of 13 chapters broken out into four parts. There is a separate study guide with a DVD available that covers the book in five sessions.

After laying out the problem of being guilt dispensers in part one, Yancey challenges us in part two to become instead dispensers of grace as pilgrims, activists, or artists.

We are all pilgrims. That is, we must view our faith walk as a process, not as having “arrived” and “holding all the answers.” Viewing others from a self-righteous sense of holy superiority or “knowing it all” is not attractive. We follow Jesus as we walk alongside others.

The activists are those who are probably more extroverted. These are the change agents wading into the fray, engaging in politics, doing missions work, engaging in international relief activities, handing out hot meals to the homeless, hanging out with friends and being salt and light in unlikely places.

The artists are most likely more on the introverted side of the equation, those who tend to be a little quieter in their evangelizing. Instead of crowds, they share faith quietly with one or two at a time. They are the writers, teachers, hospice workers, bloggers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and behind-the-scenes workers.

In part three, Yancey lays out a practical and personal theology of sorts, addressing the God question, the human question, and the social question. He provides tools and reasoning to show that faith does matter, that God is there and He cares, and that the purpose of holiness is to lift us up to our full potential. “Somehow,” he states, “we need to communicate to the uncommitted that God wants us to thrive, to live in joy and not repression, trust and not fear.”

Part four addresses how to live out faith in culture. Given that politics is such a big part of our culture, even “a sort of substitute religion” for some, Yancey offers five suggestions for safely engaging politically: (1) Clashes between Christ and culture are unavoidable, (2) Christians should choose their battles wisely, (3) Christians should fight their battles shrewdly, (4) In engaging with culture, Christians should distinguish the immoral from the illegal, and (5) The church must use caution in its dealings with the state.

You say you want a revolution

Finally, in the last chapter, Yancey suggests, “Rather than looking back nostalgically on a time when Christians wielded more power, I suggest another approach: that we regard ourselves as subversives operating within the broader culture.”

“Subversively,” he continues, “we act out our beliefs as they go against the grain of surrounding culture. When parents discard unwanted children, Christians make a home for them. When scientists seek ways to purify the gene pool, Christians look for special-needs babies to adopt. When politicians cut funding for the poor, Christians open shelters and feeding stations. When law enforcement confines criminals behind barbed wire, Christians run programs for them.”

Yancey also states that “Art may be the most effective subversion tactic,” citing that the books he read as a younger man “subverted the fragile world of fundamentalism” he grew up in.

Whether through activism or art, he explains, “Gradually, like the melting of a glacier, change takes place and what first seemed subversive becomes an accepted feature of the landscape.”

It’s only through selfless love and the power of grace that we can win the world over to faith, not through criticism and outrage.

In other words, we Christians need to stop punching our neighbors in the jaw, no matter what names they call us.

They're thirsty. Let's offer them the thirst quenching Living Water. After all, isn’t that what Jesus would do?

NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Additional resources:

How I encouraged Phil Yancey by embarrassing him.

In 1982, I wrote a review of another Yancey book, Open Windows:
“This is a select collection of articles, essays, and interviews some of which appeared in Christianity Today, Leadership, and Christian Century. They represent the remarkable breadth and depth of thought of one of the best living Christian journalists. Yancey writes with clarity, conciseness, and craftsmanship seldom found in most Christian writing today. He infuses factual reporting with honest, unaffected humanity and emotion....This is a gem of a book. It should be read for its content -- what it has to say; and for its style -- how it says what it says.”

I was stunned when Yancey responded to my little review with letter that said, in part, “I know authors probably aren’t supposed to do this, but I wanted to drop you a note to thank you for the embarrassingly positive review of my book....[I]t arrived on the day when I really needed it.”

What I wrote then still applies today. So blush on, Mr. Yancey. Blush on.

You can click the image below to enlarge it and read more. 

Wow! This is one expensive book!

You may have seen this slightly over-priced edition of Vanishing Grace on Amazon listed for more than $2,000:

Not that you would, but don’t buy this one! Yancey’s book is good but it’s not exactly worth $2,000. This is an example of what’s called “bookjacking.” Click here to read more about this practice.

In his book Yancey offers one person’s observation that “When Christians talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda to promote, and if you don’t agree with them, they’re done with you.” How do you engage with those around you, especially those who disagree with or disregard your faith? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


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