Grace Trumps

August 16, 2006

“Grace Trumps” was the name of a sermon that my rector at All Saints Pasadena, Ed Bacon, preached a few years ago.  I still remember it.

The Groody book, Border of Death, Valley of Life, that I mentioned a few days ago in one of my posts talks about grace in the third chapter (there are only four chapters!).

When discussing a mission that has a specific program designed to enhance the spirituality of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, he says:

It is not the conviction of sin that leads them to repentance.  Rather, it is the experience of the beauty and goodness of God and the community that enlightens the extent of their own inner darkness and need for healing.  Repentance happens not because of the awareness of sin but because of the compelling experience of love…  They begin to understand grace as that process through which God puts love back into the world.

I find that to be lovely, and dead-on.

I believe the traditional church has lost sight of this view, and part of what our current squabbles about are whether or not this is the correct approach to teaching and learning and loving.

As I’ve said many times before, I do not find it compelling to have the church as the admonishing schoolmarm, beating people over the head with rules and regulations, but rather the encouraging coach, standing on the sidelines saying “you can do it– you will make it.”

I find the orthodox expression of faith to be the former, and the progressive expression of faith to be the latter.

Again, I am not trying to devalue the orthodox expression of faith, but rather to say that it does not work for me.  I understand that there are those for whom answers must be clear-cut; those who need to understand very precisely what is expected of them.  I find that the value of the faith journey is in discovering for myself what God expects of me personally; not having someone else lay it out for me in a “one-size-fits-all” manner.  I believe we’re all different shapes and sizes, and that there is no one size fits all solution.  I guess that’s one of the big differences between me and orthodox Christians – I believe strongly that what may be a big sin for me may not be a sin for you, and vice versa (if I’m an alcoholic, drinking even a sip of wine may be a sin for me because of what it means for me; if you are not an alcoholic a sip of wine means nothing for you).

But again– where does the church stand?  Never to condemn, always to build up- at least in my opinion.  Of course the church must work to institute change within institutions where peace and justice reform is needed.  But the church’s job is simply not to tear individual people down.  That is demoralizing.  That is not love.  A loving parent doesn’t do that to a child; a loving parent finds ways of positive reinforcement to change behavior.  Negative reinforcement has been proven as ineffective and harmful.  God doesn’t work through negative reinforcement.  Neither should the church.

Grace, Groody says, is God’s way of returning love into the world.  How much better a place this would be if the church would work to perpetuate that grace instead of stamp it out.



7 Responses to “Grace Trumps”

  1. Phil Says:

    Jeff, I don’t think it’s either/or, but rather both. The Church has always said that certain behaviors are wrong, and I think this is predicated on the fact that God doesn’t leave us as He finds us, but expects us to repent and find amendment of life.

    If you’re saying stylistically one way will better help you to meet God’s standards, while another way will not, I suppose you’re right. If you’re saying there is no standard in the first place, I think you’re on shakier ground.

  2. Jeff Says:

    I think it is the stylistic difference that I’m speaking of, but it is an important difference. It is very easy to get caught up in the “dos and don’ts” of what others should be doing instead of the “let me see what my response is to the overwhelming grace of God” that I am suggesting here.

    One other distinction– of course God doesn’t “leave us as he finds us”– because he created us. He was never apart from us to find us in the first place. The way you use repent makes me much more uncomfortable than the way in which Groody uses it, above. To quote again, “Repentance happens not because of the awareness of sin but because of the compelling experience of love.”

    The way you phrase it puts me much more in the mindset of the former (awareness of sin). The compelling experience of love is what makes me want to improve; I have no need, however, of beating myself up over my imperfection. If God wanted me to be perfect he would not have given me free will- in other words he would have created me as a perfect being.

    I think God enjoys watching me grow just as I enjoy watching my children grow. The idea of repentence because we are horrible suffering beings is something I would not wish on my children, thus I cannot imagine God wishing it upon us. Rather it is a response to the Grace and love which we are freely given.


  3. Phil Says:

    I completely agree, Jeff. Well said.

  4. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Think about Olympic athletes. I have spent a little bit of time in the world of competitive swimming as a swimmer myself (at a very low level of competitiveness, I assure you), as an assistant coach, and more recently as an on-deck official at NCAA meets, including a few conference and national championship meets. I have seen close up and first hand the relationship between elite, Olympic-level swimmers and their coaches.

    Great swim coaches, like David Marsh at Auburn (his men’s team has won the Division I national championship the last four years in a row; his women’s team won it four out of the last five; he has sent several swimmers to the Olympics representing a variety of countries, including some gold medalists), never fail to challenge their athletes with goals that seem quite unreachable when they are first posed. In fact, good goals are those that are set so high that there is a very real possibility of failure. Yes, these coaches encourage, but they also regularly say, “I think you can do better.” Sometimes when a swimmer has a good workout they may say, “Great effort! Keep it up.” Another time after a great workout they may say, “You need to put out that kind of effort more often,” or, “That was great. I think we need to push you even harder, because you have shown me you have it in you.” Sometimes after a bad workout they may say, “That’s OK. You’ve just been pushing a little too hard. We’ll try again next week.” Another time after a bad workout they may say, “That was a terrible effort. You had better step it up a level if you want to compete.” The point of this is that it is OK to have a bad workout, but it is not OK to be satisfied with a bad workout.
    It’s not random. The coach is telling the swimmer what he or she thinks that swimmer needs to hear in order to be a better swimmer.

    Elite athletes need large doses of both challenge and encouragement. No athlete, no matter how talented, can compete at that level without high level coaching. Our innate ability, our God-given gifts, by themselves cannot possibly carry the day.

    There are very few swimmers who make it to the Olympic medal stand who have not been reduced to tears, more than once, by their coaches– the very same coaches those swimmers always greet with a big bear hug after winning. At the end of the day, those swimmers come to realize that their coaches believed in them more than they believed in themselves. “See– I told you that you could do it.”

    The purpose of the church, it has been said, is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In point of fact, all of us are comfortable in some areas and afflicted in others. The church needs to do both.

    I sometimes think that the spiritual equivalent of an Olympic gold medal is to become a saint. God in that sense is our head coach. We tend to believe we could never be saints. God believes we can, and why should he be satisfied with less from us? To become a saint, I will need to be encouraged and loved by God, but I will also need to be challenged. For each of us, the right mix of challenge and encouragement is different, but I firmly believe that we all require both. Sin is when I fall short of the very challenging goal that God has set for me. The point of conviction of sin is not to make me feel discouraged. It is to make me realize that I can do better. When I reach the point that I am so discouraged that I lose hope that I can do better, God steps in with grace and finds a way to restore that hope. But if I reach the point where I am satisfied with not doing better, then the Holy Spirit steps in with conviction of sin.

  5. Jeff Says:

    I like the phrase “the purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

    So we may just be talking about stylistic differences as Phil mentioned.

    But I have a problem with the expansion of the coach metaphor as you’ve presented. In your metaphor, the coach is no longer the church, but God. The church does not have the superior knowledge that the seasoned coach has. The church is an institution of fallible humans, none of whom necessarily have superior knowledge over the other. Only God knows when we need encouragement and when we need challenging. For another human to try and guess when we need challenge incorrectly can be very damaging- and that is my point.

    “Judge not lest ye be judged” is very important.

    Again to quote Groody, I believe that the “afflicting the comfortable” part comes not through direct confrontation, not “because of awareness of sin, but because of the compelling experience of love.” The church cannot go wrong sticking to this recipe.

    The mission which Groody describes uses small dramas to show choice and consequence- for example they will present an alcoholic father and perhaps show a drama where choices he makes lead to the accidental death of his son (he sends his son out to beg for money and passes out with the door locked overnight while it is freezing cold outside, so the son dies of hypothermia). The audience draws their own conclusion about their own life choices from this- they don’t get sermons about the horrible sin of drinking too much, or of treating people bad, or whatever. They just make their own observation about which lessons they need to apply in their own life, and the people of the mission are there to say “You can do it- how can I help?”

    Anything else is like asking the alcoholic to stop drinking. The alcoholic has to stop drinking for himself- for his own reasons. If you ask him to stop drinking for any other reason and he agrees, he will usually just go right back to the bottle, and you haven’t really accomplished anything. To top it off, you may have ruined a relationship by telling him that you are judging his behavior.


  6. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    The 12 steps of AA are very clear that an alcoholic is powerless over his addiction– he needs a higher power to help him overcome it. And the 12 steps very plainly include confession of and repentence from sin.

    You are correct that members of the church are fallible, but it is not members of the church who convict us of sin. The Holy Spirit does that, just as the Holy Spirit is the one who unlocks our hardened hearts to experience and understand God’s love. The church is the body of Christ. Our job as members of the church is to preach, by our lives and by our words, the Gospel message, as we are called. The Holy Spirit uses our actions and our words to bring encouragement and conviction to others as they have need.


  7. Jeff Says:

    Yes, Rick, and not to get too technical but those are two separate steps in the 12 steps. My point is on the first step, which is admitting you are powerless over your addiction. Someone else telling you that you have an addiction is not the first step; you have to realize it on your own. It is not until that happens that you can then move on to the second step, which is looking to a higher power for help. It is on the first step that I am focusing– whether it is ok to tell someone that they are doing wrong or not.

    Neither am I suggesting that confession and repentence are unnecessary; I am simply suggesting that they are a response to something else. To continue with the 12 step model– the confession and repentence is done in 12 steps by self-examination, the same as Groody’s model, not by someone else holding a textbook model up and saying, “you have to meet this standard or you are bad.”

    I just don’t find a use for anybody in the church condemning anybody. “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “love your neighbor” are really important in the Gospel message. Even looking in Paul’s writings, which give us some standards for monitoring each other’s behavior I don’t see anything which allows for personal condemnation of each other.


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