“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.
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.
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.
Other Related Posts/Reading
- More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel by Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins (includes Spencer’s “Playing the Grace Card” as a new, final chapter)
- Grace Matters: A Memoir of Faith, Friendship and Hope in the Heart of the South by Chris Rice (tells the whole story of Spencer’s and my friendship)
Last 5 Posts by Chris Rice
- A Sermon to Tony Blair: The True End of the Iraq War
- Desert Father: A Walking Sign of a Broken Immigration System
- How a Small Band of College Grads Became a $2 Million Global Ministry Without Losing Their Sou
- In Search of Peace? Take the Google Reconciliation Test
- The Korea-Japan Conflict: Lessons for Peace