How Grace Works

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Friends and Partner letter dated May 2015

Billy was just finishing some art work, so he was the last first-grader to leave the classroom for recess. Just as he stood up and got ready to run out to the playground, he looked down and was horrified to see a puddle between his feet.

He could not remember when it happened nor could he imagine how it could have happened. His mind was already racing on fast forward – he visualized his humiliation when the boys and the girls came in from recess and made fun of him for wetting his pants. This was going to be the worst day of his life!

Billy was petrified by fear and then, to make matters worse, he saw his teacher, Mrs. Bartley, walking toward him. Billy knew that Mrs. Bartley would want to know why he wasn’t out on the playground. And then, to make matters worse, Billy also saw Suzie, the pretty girl who sat right next to him, walking right behind Mrs. Bartley. Billy remembered that when the bell rang for recess Mrs. Bartley had asked Suzie to stay behind for a few minutes to help with some projects. And now Suzie was walking over to his desk with Mrs. Bartley! Billy realized that when Suzie saw the puddle under his desk, life as he knew it would be over. But just before his teacher got to his desk, Suzie, who was carrying the goldfish bowl from Mrs. Bartley’s desk toward the sink at the back of the classroom so she could change the water,
somehow stumbled and tripped. Suzie spilled the goldfish bowl all over Billy and his desk.

At first Billy was upset, but then it only took a few seconds for him to realize the water that had just flooded his clothing and his desk had washed away all his fears. His fears and worries had been baptized in stale water from the goldfish bowl. Billy had been saved and rescued from what surely would have been the worst day of his life!

Mrs. Bartley rushed to a closet where she kept some emergency clothes to find something Billy could change into
while his shirt and pants dried. Suzie first of all rescued the goldfish and then she got down on her hands and knees to clean up all the water around Billy’s desk, all the while telling him how sorry she was for spilling it on him. The other kids were beginning to come in from recess, and they started helping too – and there was no doubt in Billy’s mind that Suzie and the goldfish bowl had transformed him from an object of ridicule to an object of sympathy.

The rest of the day Billy couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. After school Suzie was standing just ahead of Billy as they waited in line for the bus. He whispered in her ear, “You spilled that goldfish bowl on purpose, didn’t you?” Suzie responded, “I wet my pants once too.”

The fictional character Atticus Finch, portrayed by the late Gregory Peck in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird told his daughter, Scout, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Given the wisdom and perspective that comes from hindsight, I can see how God mercifully transformed my life about 25 years ago all the while letting me know he knew exactly how I felt. During several years I now describe as a dark night of my soul, I had come to the painful and humiliating conclusion that while my professional life had been spent as a minister, college administrator and professor of theology and while I was close to mastering the “fine art” of religious manipulation and control, I gradually became painfully aware I knew virtually nothing about Jesus.

I remember feeling somewhat like Billy – there I was standing in a puddle of my own shame and embarrassment. Jesus, whose name I had known and about whose life I had taught in the classroom, graciously introduced himself to me. I realized that up until then I had known facts about him but I had never truly known Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t upset with my past stupidity. He was gentle and careful in leading me to know God as he is, rather than what I had thought. God graciously took me by the hand, allowing me to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Given my particular religious background and my twisted and warped ideas about God, Jesus graciously ignited a passionate fire of interest in me about three fundamental theological issues.

  1. The nature of God;
  2. The love of God – the nature of God’s nature;
  3. God’s amazing grace.

The nature of God: God mercifully revealed himself to me so that I came to know and perceive the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – three Divine Persons who are one, co-eternal and co-essential, existing in perfect harmony and unity. By God’s grace, I came to embrace and trust the fullness of the one God who exists eternally as three divine Persons.

As I grew in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior I also realized that Jesus did not come to be one of us so that he could turn us all into theologians. Life in Christ is not one long, ponderous effort preparing us to pass a final exam about the dogmas and doctrines of the Trinity. Jesus came so that we might know God. We can come to know God without extensive reading and study of theologians whose writings we can’t comprehend! All we need to know is who God is and how much he loves us.

Like the goldfish bowl in the story of Billy and Suzie, we are all like goldfish in that we are captives of time and space. We can swim to the edge of this goldfish bowl we call planet earth and peer out into what lies beyond, but our vision and perception is limited. There is so much about the nature of God that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The nature of God’s nature: In what we call the Incarnation, God, in the person of Jesus, became one of us, climbing into our skin, defining and revealing himself as love. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus opens our eyes so that we realize God embodies love and his love absolutely defines him. That’s why I am resolutely Christ-centered, for apart from Jesus, nothing else means anything nor is anything else in life significant.

The amazing grace of God: God’s grace is the manner in which he communicates his nature and his love to people like you and me. God’s grace is the vehicle that delivers his love. God’s grace is the channel through which he communicates to us and makes himself known. Because God’s grace is the vehicle through which he makes himself known, we might say that his grace is where the spiritual rubber hits the road!

I have been involved in extensive study, prayer and discussion regarding God’s grace for well over two decades, and I still feel like the retired professor who wrote about the time he stood on the beach, gazing out over the vast ocean, realizing how little he actually knew. He felt a little like a goldfish, having lived his professional life in an erudite, sheltered setting, but now, standing on the edge of the vast, limitless ocean, he was overwhelmed by
his own insignificance.

God’s grace announces and proclaims that God will be known and experienced on his terms, not on ours. Grace
explains and illustrates God’s terms as it delivers his love and reveals his nature. Grace says that the kingdom of God is different from the kingdom of the goldfish bowl. As goldfish, we live in a world of quid pro quo – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You do something for me and I will pay you or do something equal to what you have done for me. We understand life in the goldfish bowl as an endless cycle of staying alive by our own efforts. We avoid predators, and we make a life for ourselves by the sweat of our brows (I don’t think goldfish sweat nor do they have brows, but all metaphors eventually go up in smoke!).

God’s grace is the proof that our currency – our medium of spiritual and religious exchange – is not accepted in the
kingdom of heaven.
We cannot pay for or earn any standing with God because he doesn’t accept our “money.” Christ-less religious institutions would have us believe that the religious currency it prints in the church basement will enable us to buy a ticket to heaven. But God’s grace says that God’s “money” is free. Of course, within legalistic, authoritarian religious institutions God’s grace doesn’t really count for much because their legalisms blind them so that they just don’t get it.

God’s “money” is his grace – it’s the currency of his kingdom. It’s the currency that says those who try to save their
lives will lose it and that the servant is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The Christ-like story of Suzie accidentally-on-purpose spilling the goldfish bowl on Billy, baptizing all his fears and “saving” him, causes me to think of another Christ-like story, illustrating the incredible love of God.

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was born in England, but through his business interests in South Africa (the former country of Rhodesia was named after him) he became, by the time of his death, one of the richest men in the world. Rhodes believed in proper etiquette and good manners. He was always appropriately dressed for the occasion. A young man had been invited for a dinner party at Rhodes’ home, and the young man arrived after a long journey by train still wearing the casual and wrinkled clothing from his travels. The young man arrived late, and was embarrassed to find that the other dinner guests were already present and that they were wearing formal evening dress.

After what seemed a long time, Rhodes appeared for the dinner wearing a shabby and wrinkled old suit. The young man later learned that Cecil Rhodes had been wearing formal evening wear, but when he heard of the embarrassing dilemma of his young guest, he excused himself and changed his clothing to make his young, under-dressed guest feel comfortable, at ease and welcome.

With thanksgiving for you, and by his amazing grace.

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