Grace Day 2016: 4 Quotes on the Upside-Down, Unfair, Often Unsettling, and Utterly Beautiful Gift of Grace
In 1997, after experiencing a wondrous breakthrough to deeper love in our life together, the members of our Antioch Community in Jackson, Mississippi declared every October 18 forward to be “Grace Day.” A day to remember all of God’s wondrous interruptions in our lives. A day to remember that if the gospel we live comes to be mostly about trying harder and doing more, it is not good news. A day to remember to not take ourselves too seriously… and to get enough sleep. A day to remember, as the old folks used to say in Jackson, that “God might not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time.”
Today, on Grace Day 2016, here are 4 of my favorite quotes about grace—from Nadia Bolz-Weber, Spencer Perkins, Pope Francis, and Flannery O’Connor. Lord knows these days we need a dose of what they speak of.
“I think a lot of congregations have a situation where there are more people talking about God in the basement during the week; the basement of their church is more full of people talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in God. I think that happens more frequently in their basements than it does in their sanctuaries. … You know what organization is not really having a problem is AA; it’s doing fine. They’re not in a crisis. There aren’t meetings in AA where they’re like, ‘How can we get people to start showing up more?’ So I think that there’s something about people speaking honestly about their lives, and sometimes, I think, church is more about pretending your life is fine, and, I think, less and less people have time for that.”
— Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, on basing some of her practice on Alcoholics Anonymous
“But grace is not about being fair. We wouldn’t dare demand fairness from God. What’s so amazing about grace is that God forgives us and embraces us even though we don’t deserve it. What’s new about grace, at least for me, is that because we are grateful for what God did for us, we allow him to do the same to others through us. This means that if I know this loving God who is so full of grace, then I will forgive, accept, and embrace those who, like me, don’t deserve my grace and forgiveness. Our willingness and ability to give grace or to forgive others is an accurate indicator of how well we know God … What I am learning about grace lifts a weight from my shoulders, which is nothing short of invigorating. When we can forgive and accept those who refuse to listen to God’s command to do justice, it allows them to hear God’s judgment without feeling a personal judgment from us. Which, in the end gives our message more integrity. The ability to give grace while preaching justice makes our witness even more effective.”
— Spencer Perkins, in the final article he published
“I am always struck when I reread the parable of the merciful Father. … The Father, with patience, love, hope and mercy, had never for a second stopped thinking about [his wayward son], and as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God, without a word of reproach. … God is always waiting for us, He never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence and hope — always!”
— Pope Francis, Homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 7, 2013
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
— Writer Flanner O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
This is my first time to announce a new published writing of mine with both great delight and a bit of dismay.
The delight: A wonderful new book was just released, Conflict Transformation and Religion: Essays on Faith, Power, and Relationship (Palgrave Macmillan). My chapter in this multiple-author book is “‘Word Made Flesh’: Toward a Pedagogy of a New We.” I tell the story of a conflict that broke out between Rwandans and Congolese at our 2013 African Great Lakes Institute in Kampala, Uganda, and use this as a backdrop to describe the methodology we developed which seeks to bring divided “us and them” groups into a new we.
For me, our pedagogy became a response to a question which haunted me from my first visit to Rwanda in 2004 , posed by a church leader there: “How do we form Christians who say no to killing?” The Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation (where I was co-director with Emmanuel Katongole) sought to provide an answer from the world of theological education. Could we create a school of conversion–a space that would bring together Christians from divided countries, denominations, institutions, and ethnic groups; change their hearts and minds and relationships; and form them into a community of change in the region? The “Word Made Flesh” methodology I describe is now embedded into the Duke Summer Reconciliation Institute, the African Great Lakes Institute, and the Northeast Asia Reconciliation Initiative. The gift of writing the chapter was to express how pedagogy can become a means of grace. What a privilege to work with the other authors, both scholars and practitioners, and to see the various ways we approach conflict transformation and education.
The dismay: I can barely fix my mouth to say this book costs $69.99 on the Palgrave site (an electronic version at that), and my single chapter can be purchased for the walloping price of $29.95. My goodness, this a book, not caviar. Still, do consider buying a copy for your church or organization, or ask your university or public library to order it. My fellow authors wrote some terrific chapters (and I am grateful for the tireless work of editor Ellen Ott Marshall of the Candler School at Emory). Here is what Palgrave says about the book:
Writing from a variety of contexts, the contributors to this volume describe the ways that conflict and their efforts to engage it constructively shape their work in classrooms and communities. Each chapter begins with a different experience of conflict—a physical confrontation, shooting and killing, ethnic violence, a hate crime, overt and covert racism, structural violence, interpersonal conflict in a family, and the marginalization of youth. The authors employ a variety of theoretical and practical responses to conflict, highlighting the role that faith, power, and relationships play in processes of transformation. As these teachers and ministers engage conflict constructively, they put forward novel approaches toward teaching, training, care, solidarity, and advocacy. Their stories demonstrate how conflict can serve as a site for positive change and transformation.
Wonderful article in The Mennonite by Sue Park-Hur on recent Northeast Asia Reconciliation Forum in Hong Kong. One excerpt from “Lament That Leads to Hope”:
Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School gave a lecture on the Psalms of lament. She reminded us that lament is a spiritual practice that does not come naturally. Whining comes naturally, but lament is difficult theological work. Complaint is natural, but it does not transform us, whereas in the process of genuine lamenting to God, new vision unfolds and we can be transformed.
Her insights gave us a framework to lament the pain and despair we see so much in Northeast Asia. It provided a guideline to trust that the one we cry out to hears and transforms us, bringing us to a place of hope.
Sue also tells a moving story of our Macau pilgrimage. Known as the “Vegas of Asia,” less known is Macau’s place in the origins of Christianity shared by Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. Sue tells of standing under a statue of Korean martyr who was the first Catholic priest in Korea:
It was in Macau in 1826, at the age of sixteen, that St. Andrew Kim first came to study at the seminary. Later, in 1844, he was ordained in Shanghai and returned to Korea to preach and evangelize. He was martyred for his faith in 1846 in Korea at the age of 25.
As a mother of a 16-year-old son, I considered not only the immense calling and sacrifice of St. Andrew Kim, but of his parents… In standing before the statue with other Korean participants [both Protestant and Catholic], I recognized that this was sacred ground. The kernel of wheat that fell and died has indeed produced many seeds. We who gathered under St. Andrew’s statue were Koreans living in South and North Korea, Canada, and the U.S. Although we were from multiple denominational backgrounds, we have committed to the work of peace and reconciliation, recognizing that this is at the heart of the gospel. The work before us is a gift and a privilege given to us from the sacrifices of our ancestors, and we embrace the calling to continue following Jesus who unites us.
In 2012, when I was at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, we looked at rising conflicts around the globe and decided to gather 28 Christian leaders from China, Japan, Korea, and the U.S. to discern the signs of the times and ask if a fresh space was needed to further peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia. It was a rare meeting of Protestant and Catholic, academics and church leaders and practitioners. It was awkward at times and there were many surprises. One Hong Kong church leader said he had never seen so many Japanese Christians in one room–six! (Christians are less than 1% of Japan’s population, but what a terrific sextet we had). For three days we worshiped together, ate together, wrestled with Scripture together, and talked deeply about historical wounds and current divides and rising tensions in the region. At times it was contentious. But unexpected joy and laughter too.
At the end, the group called for a new initiative to nourish Christian leadership, theology, mission, and collaboration for the ministry of reconciliation in Northeast Asia.
Over the three years since, a core group who were largely strangers to one another have become companions in organizing what we now call the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia–a kind of “theological fueling station” for the difficult work of peace and reconciliation. After Duke in 2012 (Duke is still a core partner and Mennonite Central Committee is a newer one), we expanded the group in South Korea in 2014 and then Nagasaki Japan in 2015, and this year we meet in Hong Kong.
I am happy to introduce the Forum’s new web site at neareconciliation.com. Below are three of my favorite stories posted there which embody the “new we” at the heart of our vision which we believe God is about, even in this time of rising tensions.
Last week my wife Donna and I returned from six days in North Korea, representing MCC along with two colleagues. Along with other Christian organizations, MCC is seeking to be a reconciliatory presence at a time of rising hostilities. In this spirit we at MCC recently published “Frequently asked questions on North Korea, MCC’s work, and why sanctions matter.” In addition to the urgent need for humanitarian exceptions, one question we address: If North Korea is considered an enemy of the United States, why should MCC assist North Koreans with food and material resources?
See the full document: Sanctions on North Korea (DPRK) are not the answer
“MCC was engaged as a reconciliatory presence with people in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Cuba before they had diplomatic relations with the U.S. Engagement, not isolation, is a more effective way to bring understanding between peoples and plant seeds for a new future of peace and security for all.”
Thanking God today for dear friend and yokefellow Spencer Perkins, who passed into heaven too suddenly 18 years ago. I so wish I could hear what he would preach and write now, in this new time of polarization. A poem I wrote, a year after he died.
Hymn to an Insane-Loving God
In memory of Spencer Perkins 1954-January 27, 1998
For him it was always hard, accepting who he was,
Even in your eyes.
So I do that today,
For he was much greater than he knew.
For his undeserved embrace of prodigals,
Despite their spit, persecution, flight, hubris,
Betrayals, stealing, addictions, lies,
From boyz in the ‘hood gone astray
To countless white eager-beavers busy disappearing.
For soothing souls with the balm of forgiveness felt,
Thus propelling them forward to make new history.
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For keeping his vows to his little postage stamp on earth,
West Jackson, in sickness and in health,
In Christmas robberies and barbecue throw-downs,
Over decades long enough to uncover all our masks,
A fellowship of recovering sinners
Freeing from addictions seen and unseen:
Self-condemnation and privilege, winos and egotists,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For his Labrador-like patience, stability, devotion,
Sticking with impossible people
And even a measly stray mutt we called Bebe—
Car-struck, we wanted her put to a restful end;
He couldn’t bear it and, without permission,
Spent $300, enduring our wrath,
And Bebe wiggled her way into our extended family.
Even for that, we thank you, insane-loving God.
For his restless truth-seeking,
No matter where it led him,
Whether seen as prophet or traitor,
Whether he liked it or not.
“Loving neighbor means especially loving white folks,” his parents had told him.
Refusing justice or refusing mercy was not a choice, he told us,
Nor facing down race or race fatigue,
Nor being free of the power to exclude nor of the power to not forgive.
Yes, this was bearing a cross, yet:
“Reconcilers don’t die, we multiply.”
For enlarging us all, for making all of us more holy,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For yoking with me to the end,
Dragging the plow through sin-thick sod,
Never, either of us, easy to love.
The fragility of our yoke gave way,
Only to reveal a greater one, invisible,
Binding us mysteriously to you
And so, somehow, finding the way back to each other.
I miss that holy, muddy ground,
The jokes that only we shared,
His warm hug that day after we fought, and his promise:
“Chris, I love you like my own brother.”
I thank you, insane-loving God.
For, out of nowhere, bushwhacking him by grace,
And carrying him to the top of the mountain,
Moses-like, to glimpse wondrous new territory
And there, finally, to see himself with your eyes,
“My beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For sending him back down, for a moment,
To describe the view,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
What he saw from afar
Is now for us to possess.
To cross treacherous rivers,
To embrace strange territory,
To cultivate the culture of grace,
Sowing with love beyond reason, unfair, undeserved—
The way you love.
Like you, he showed me how to love insanely, too,
And he was greater than he knew.
On this 30th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an eye-opening Washington Post story describes five common myths about King. (One myth: “King’s focus was racism in the South.” Yet King also opposed American militarism and campaigned against poverty in the north.)
But one myth not named by the Post is propagated by the National King Memorial itself, a monument that is situated at the center of the U.S. capital in Washington DC. I visited the memorial in 2012. It is only a stone’s throw from the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. It is moving. It is majestic. I am still astounded that the U.S. placed a monument to a non-violent peacemaker here.
Yet the monument ultimately gets King wrong. Fourteen stirring quotations from King are spread around the site, such as this one: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
But in not a single one of the quotations is God mentioned.
The monument is to Dr. King. Not Reverend King. Not the preacher King. Yet King’s ministry facing down America’s transgressions to redeem the soul of the nation made no sense to himself apart from the Scripture and church that shaped him and the Lord to whom he prayed.
One of the most important stories King told was of his “kitchen table” encounter in 1956 where he was ready to give up the civil rights struggle due to intense opposition and hate. In his book Stride Toward Freedom King testified that there, alone in his home, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
The fundamental identity of Martin Luther King was not grounded in his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. His core identity and imagination was grounded in that prayer, and in the preaching and way of seeing the world and the enemy which flowed from it. Without getting that right, we don’t get Reverend King right either.