I Repeat, Grace

One of my critics (at least they read) sent me a private note about my posts, asking the question, “Where is the grace?”

I replied privately to this private communication. The conversation continues, privately. I will not “out” the individual. I did ask for permission to address some of the concerns I have under the rubric of my quiet critic’s concerns.

I believe grace is entirely of God and humankind is the recipient of the divine blessing of God’s unmerited favor. This leaves me with one or two of the usual problems, which I cannot answer just by the empty-headed response, “Grace trumps everything.”

Grace covers all, completes all, convinces all. However, if an empty-hearted appeal to grace is a substitute for actual repentance, one wonders (Ok, I wonder) what place grace plays in conversion, or if conversion actually occurs, at all. I can read what Luther writes  about Scripture and Grace (sola scriptura, sola gratia) and be appropriately inspired. If I then read his virulent anti-semitism, which was completely acceptable in his culture and time, I am viscerally appalled at his complete lack of compassion for the Jews. Luther’s crude language and coarse hatred of Jews seems the polar opposite of Scriptural love, compassion and, well, grace.

Is it enough to say of Luther that he was a “man of his times?” Does this “cover” his apparent failure to repent of race hatred and religious bigotry? Where, indeed, is the grace, if repentance for inner hatred applied to a particular group is not present?

Where, indeed, is the grace?

I believe grace is meant to be transformational, not transactional. If grace recipient are to be perfected in love, it must surely be grace applied to the human soma/psyche that enables the perfection of the person through love. Works can contribute to one’s faith, but the works themselves may be empty of grace, or even empty of grace’s companion, faith.

Successful congregations today (success being defined loosely, as anything from “staying open” to “attracting new attenders”) are some form of High-Cost, or High-Expectations groups. Giving and attendance are tracked, often through semi-autonomous “Care Groups,” but often by automated tracking overseen by a very wired vocational. The moral/ethical component may be  conspicuous by its absence but I contend there is some mass-acceptable communication of expectations, which are to be met at a high-level. Grace, as a concept, is often used as a general covering word for any kind of misconduct, so long as the misconduct does not violate one of the generally agreed upon expectations. Again, these expectations are generally acceptable, which is what makes them expectations, and are intended to be practiced at a high level.

I contend that High-Expectation congregations will be the survivors in our increasingly secular age. Congregations that try to survive without some mutually agreed expectations that are (perhaps sadly) quantifiable and communicable will find their way more difficult.

I also contend (get out your knife) that the High-Expectation groups may forfeit transformational grace in order to survive (and thrive). High-expectation groups may tend to be Group-Think, corporate business style organizations. Congregants buy-in to something, with the promise that their obedience to the code will suffice. This is transactional, not necessarily transformational.

Let me give an extreme example. A short time ago, I was asked to officiate a Men’s Church League basketball game. I do not do church league anything, because they are the absolute worst in terms of conduct. This is universal, across the board, the worst, the pits, stay away. However, my son, who still does them, had a family thing to do and I agreed to take his spot.

He told me, “I’m sending a huge guy to be your partner. He will he a great help. You will need it.”

I met my partner at the game. He is a former college football player from a D-I school. Huge, muscled and friendly.

We were two minutes into the first game when a wonderful church league fellow balled up a fist and swung at an opponent. He failed to make contact but he swung a fist. I blew my whistle, signaled an Intentional Flagrant and ejected the player. He refused to leave the court, cursed me for a fool with indecent, gutter profanity and dared me to fight him.

My partner told him to leave the court. He finally did so.

One clock minute later, one of his team-mates dropped a series of “F” bombs on my partner. My partner ejected him. On his way out, the second ejected player held up both hands with middle-fingers raised to my partner. He continued to drop “F” bombs all the way off the court.

My partner said, aloud, “That is embarrassing. We go to the same church. That is just embarrassing to see you act this way.”

To which the player said, with middle-fingers still raised above his head, “Oh, now you’re judging me.”

He was nearer me than my partner, so I said, “I don’t know if he is judging you but I am judging you, for sure.”

And so the evening went. Another of their team-mates threatened me, told me he would meet me in the parking lot and settle it all. I ejected him and suggested the parking lot was too dim from my old eyes, so we could settle it in the gym. He demurred.

One of the ejected men came back in after the game. He actually told me, “We don’t act like this at church, but you should not have put us out of the game.”

I did not reply.

The large, bustling congregation they attend regularly has its expectations. There are ways to behave and ways that one does not behave. Here is the problem, at least for me. The moral/ethical  component is sadly lacking, so, though the transaction has been accomplished, making a person acceptable in the cult, there is a major disconnect between the cultic activity and the culture.

I am asked, “Where is the grace?” I must believe grace is most visible in the transformation of lives, not in some transaction, which is supposed to settle all things, regardless of constant, or even occasional (though sometimes extreme) misconduct.

Yes, the fellows who cursed, threatened and abused our officiating crew need to be in some reformative congregation. People who do much worse things (judged by the culture or the cult) still need redemption. However, I contend persons who habitually abuse others and/or practice self-destructive behaviors do not need to be told, in empty-headed or empty-hearted mien, “You are ok. You made the transaction. You are covered.”

Wesley was always asking people, “Why are we not better?”

I contend he asked the right question.

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