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Celebrating “Grace Day”: From Trying Harder and Doing More to a Culture of Grace

October 19, 2009

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Reconcilers who almost split

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” — Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Twelve years ago yesterday, I was born again … again.  After 17 years of intense church-based racial justice and reconciliation ministry in Mississippi, my gospel had largely become a matter of trying harder and doing more.  And things I held dear began to fall apart.

At the same time that my African-American colleague Spencer Perkins and I were traveling the nation preaching about reconciliation, we could hardly sit at the same dinner table together at home, where our families shared daily life in an intentional Christian community called Antioch.  Our long friendship and ministry partnership was on the verge of breaking up.  We each held tightly to our “lists”—“you did this to me,” “well you did that to me.”  The final straw was when I shared that my wife and I were considering leaving the Antioch community.  Spencer blew up, accusing me of being a deserter to the cause.

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John and a companion

We asked two mentors to fly in for a last-ditch attempt to save us from a split up.  John and Judy Alexander had spent many years in Christian justice ministry.  John had been the editor of The Other Side, the leading prophetic evangelical magazine at that time along with Sojourners. Now they were part of a small church in San Francisco.

John and Judy talked to Spencer, to me, to Antioch members.  We all gathered, and I was at the edge of my seat when John gave his diagnosis of our problem.

“Which does the Bible speak more of, loving God or loving your neighbor?”  I thought it was a trick question.  How can you separate the two?  Jesus didn’t! (Matthew 22:36-40).  After watching us squirm, John laughed.  “I’m a very anal person,” he admitted, and went on to describe how once he had actually counted all the verses in the Bible about loving God and loving neighbor.  They were innumerable of course, the latter including so many about loving the poor that had profoundly shaped my work with Spencer.

But John said he made a surprising discovery:  Far more than verses about loving God or loving the poor were stories about God’s love for us. The most important truth in the world, said John, is not our trying harder to love God or others, but God’s action of love for us.  “If you don’t get God’s love into your bones, you will become very dangerous people,” he warned.  “Especially activists like you.  The most important person in this community is not Spencer, or Chris, or any of you, or the people in the neighborhood.  The most important person in any community is Jesus.  Your life has to keep Jesus at the center. ”

But Spencer and I dug in our heels.  My list about Spencer was too long, too full of truth.  Then John said the problem between me and Spencer was mostly about me, and I didn’t want to hear that.  I was tired of such an intense life together.  Tired of a culture of demanding so much from myself and others.  Tired of being tired.

Over the next two days John and Judy failed in their attempts to get me and Spencer to forgive each other.  But where human efforts fail, where we come to the end of our own resources, the Spirit intercedes.

On October 18, 1997, Spencer and I were interrupted by grace.  A new dimension of reality exploded our lists.  Spencer told the story of hearing John this way:

“Yeah, yeah, I know all about grace,” I thought. I could quote John 3:16 when I was knee high to a duck. Grace is God’s love demonstrated to us, even though we don’t deserve it. But in all my 43 years of evangelical teaching, I never understood until now that God intended for grace to be a way of life for his followers. Maybe I’m the only one who missed it, but judging by the way that we all get along, I don’t think so. Sure, I knew that we are supposed to love one another as Christ loved us. But somehow it was much easier for me to swallow the lofty untested notion of dying for each other than simply giving grace to brothers and sisters on a daily basis, the way God gives us grace. Maybe I’m dense, but I just never got it.

“At our relationship’s weakest moment, Chris and I saw, as clearly as we had ever seen anything, that only by giving each other grace could we find healing and restoration. We could either hold on to our grievances and demand that all our hurts be redressed, or we could follow God’s example, give each other grace, and trust God for the lack. We chose grace.”

Spencer somehow gave me grace to leave Antioch.  I somehow found the grace to stay.  And we gave each other the grace to make a new beginning.

The interruption shook us to the core.  We spoke of replacing a culture of demands with a “culture of grace.”  Spencer said it felt like going back to kindergarten—learning a new language and new practices.  For us, “telling the truth” had so much become telling the church and each other how you need to change and be more radical.  But now we saw that the greatest truth was telling and showing each other how much God loves us.  Our paradigm for daily life had shifted to John’s mantra, “Caring for each other, forgiving each other, and keeping the dishes washed.  We are forgiven.  All the rest is details.”

Grace’s ripple effects pressed yet further.  Ever since seeing his father John Perkins the morning after his bloody beating in a Mississippi jail cell in 1970, Spencer had been on a long journey to understand what the power of racial strongholds meant for American Christianity.

Three months after the October breakthrough, during a closing message at a conference we hosted in Jackson, Spencer told the story of his and my friendship being restored.  Speaking of “Playing the Grace Card,” Spencer translated that breakthrough to the church’s racial challenge in America.

First he was clear:  “Nothing that I have been learning about grace and forgiveness diminishes my belief in Christians working for justice, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed.”  But for Spencer how we work for this justice must change:

“Although we must continue to speak on behalf of those who are oppressed and warn oppressors, my willingness to forgive them is not dependent on how they respond. Being able to extend grace and to forgive people sets us free. We no longer need to spend precious emotional energy thinking about the day oppressors will get what they deserve.

“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.”

It was a difficult message, and Spencer’s words were not received with thunderous applause that night.  But just three days later Spencer died suddenly of a heart attack at age 44. Afterwards, many told me they were now taking his words very seriously.

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Jesus, Martha, and Mary by Rembrandt

Over the 12 years since being “born again, again,” I have sought to create more room for grace from God, and with others.  I used to live as if the Psalmist said “Be busy and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  I hope I have become as radical about receiving the gift of Sabbath as pursuing justice.  I remain committed to being like the Samaritan who offers hospitality to the “other” in Jesus’ story in Luke.  Yet I have also sought to be like Mary of Bethany in the story which immediately follows, who “wasted time” listening at Jesus’ feet (“the one thing needful” he said) while her sister Martha slaved away doing good deeds in the kitchen in a world of ever-pressing needs (Luke 10:25-42).  I hope I more embody the difference between trying to be a minister and trying to be a messiah.

In 1997, we at Antioch 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 take our actions seriously—but not too seriously.  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.”

For the good news of the gospel is that it is God’s time and not ours which matters.  We are not the central actors in saving the world’s brokenness.  In the life and resurrection of the crucified Christ living now in heaven and giving everything we need to live well in a broken world through the Holy Spirit, God has already changed everything through the power of a grace we do not deserve.

Flannery O’Connor was right:  to receive such a grace is not sentimental, and even a bit terrifying.  We will surely be changed in ways we’d rather not be.  It is painful to give up our “lists” about others—and ourselves—for this other way.  Grace is not safe or tame.  But it is beautiful.  If we receive this gift of God deeply into our bones, and speak it into the bones of those around us both near and far, everything changes about who we are in the midst of a world wracked by injustice and death.  Today I celebrate that.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 5:51 pm

    Chris –

    Thanks for this reminder of that great weekend in Jackson in January 1998. I was somewhat of a new president at Belhaven when we had the group on our campus. And it is only in years since that I’ve seen the significance of that event unfold.

    The pulpit where Spencer preached that message how holds a plaque with a quote from him calling us to a culture of grace. Of course, that evening, who would have known that was to be his last time to preach.

    From that event, God has done so much, but one of those things is to strengthen Belhaven College’s resolve in racial reconciliation. We were doing okay, but we’ve moved to whole new levels since then – now ranked as the most diverse large private college in America.

    Thanks to you and Spencer, and our friend Dr. John, for pushing us all to create a culture of grace where God can bring genuine and lasting reconciliation.

    Keep pushing brother – God us using your message and gace-filled leadership to strengthen us all.

    Roger

  2. Paul Sorrentino permalink
    October 19, 2009 7:40 pm

    Chris,I was at that January conference nearly 12 years ago. I continue to wrestle with making the teaching about grace a central part of my life. The talk that you and Spencer gave remains as one of the most pivotal messages I have heard in my life. I left that conference with a sense of a torch being passed on to me and the 400 others there. It was a relay race for racial reconciliation and you and Spencer had carried too much of the weight yourselves. It was a call to enlistment that I’ve not forgotten. That call was heightened by Spencer’s death a few days afterwards.
    Thank you for maintaining the call to a grace filled life and to reconciliation.

  3. Jason Dewey permalink
    October 19, 2009 9:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing these reflections. It was a privilege for me to be a small part of your and Spencer’s life during that time. I will never forget the range of emotions during that conference: from the excitement of the diverse participants at the opening, to the horrifying scare of Spencer’s initial collapse, to the final mountaintop message of grace.

    As one who has lived much of life making ill-fated attempts to please God and desiring to do more for Him, I too have grown as I have come to better understand the depth of God’s love toward me. I have experienced firsthand how my efforts to do more for Him pale in comparison to the work that He has done in me.

    As I have learned to better appreciate the taste of God’s grace in my life I am compelled to share that experience with others in hope that they might also find the same true fulfillment.

    I have also recognized that as I have focused less on what I can do for Him and more on how I can be with Him, He has slowly helped me to become more like Him and has equipped me to also do more for Him.

  4. marQue permalink
    October 20, 2009 11:06 am

    Chris –

    Thanks so much for this post – your words (and Spencer’s) washed over me this morning in a powerful and refreshing way. The need to keep Jesus’ love at my center, to not waste my energy worrying about the oppressors getting there’s, to be a minister not a messiah – to tell truth – but never stray from God’s love and and allowing his grace to flow through me.

    You and Spencer were such a role model to me and my “Yokefellow” brother (who is still a dear friend) and it is so fresh to hear this word in a moment when I’m tired of “believers” who speak truth and live hate, yet I realize without bathing daily in God’s love I will become what I abhor.

    Keep up the God-work!

  5. Chuck Olcese permalink
    October 20, 2009 12:10 pm

    January 1998 changed my life. I was at the conference, but missed Spencer’s talk that night because I stayed back in my room trying to wrestle with my own selfish ambition to lead a multicultural team from our campus at North Park University. I was the only white male on the team and of course I stepped to the front to lead the effort. After Spencer collapsed that day we were all shook and had a meeting with our team. It was then that it came out that some had a problem with trusting me in leadership. I was devastated for the second time that day. This time much more personally. How could I continue if the “people” didn’t trust me. God met me that night with my own grace message. It was to be learned over and over through the years — still learning as I remain a white man committed to racial reconciliation. More cautious now about leading and hopefully listening much more. Just yesterday I found myself in a meeting of community and campus leaders discussing issues of diversity. Still learning. It is good to be reminded of these beginnings. I’ve recounted the story of that conference and that day many times since. It remains a benchmark and a mystery — “the Jackson experience.” Thanks Chris.

  6. Sheryl Fullerton permalink
    October 20, 2009 12:30 pm

    Dear Chris,
    It brought back such wonderful memories to see you writing about your reconciliation with Spencer through grace. Working with you on GRACE MATTERS was delightful not just because of you (although it was a genuine pleasure) but because of the message of the book. You weren’t afraid to let readers see the struggles of your work in Jackson–you were keeping it real always. And the message of that book has always been one that I think the world (and in particular Christians) really need to hear. May it be so.
    Blessings on you, brother.
    Sheryl

  7. debbie gish permalink
    October 21, 2009 4:08 pm

    Thanks Chris! As we near 25 years together here at Church of the Sojourners, this stuff is never old and always needing to be remembered. I’m grateful that our story and your story overlapped at such an important and pivotal time in your life. I hope you are well.

    debbie

  8. Kelly Hughes permalink
    October 21, 2009 4:32 pm

    Chris,

    I echo what Sheryl says about working with you on Grace Matters, and the importance and relevance of your message now and always.

    It is good to be reminded that we can replace the “culture of demands” with the “culture of grace.” Amen.

    Thank you for your work and wisdom.
    Kelly

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