How dare you speak of grace?
A while back I spent a good chunk of a week at a denominational pastors' retreat in the Alberta foothills just north of Calgary. One of the things we did during our worship times each day was spend some time â€śdwelling in the Word.â€ť The specific text we focused on each session was Luke 7:36-50, the story where Jesus is anointed by a â€śsinful womanâ€ť at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Itâ€™s a scandalous storyâ€”a woman of ill repute showing up a bunch of religious elites, crashing their party with her sensuous, inappropriate display of penitence, love, and devotion. Even more scandalously, Jesus praises her as an example to emulate, claims to forgive her sin, and sends her away in peace. One can only imagine what must have been going on in the minds of the esteemed, religious host and his respectable dinner guests!
During one session, we were invited to creatively re-imagine and re-present the text to others. How might this story have played out today? Who would the characters have been? Where did we see ourselves in the story? Now I am, it must be said, an incorrigible rationalist and about as creative as mudâ€¦ And I enjoy role-playing about as much as a root canalâ€¦ But it was good and necessary for me to (painfully, awkwardly) enter into this story. Personally. Itâ€™s one thing to affirm that this woman recognized her need for mercy, grace, and forgiveness and that I should do the same. Itâ€™s quite another to imagine myself exhibiting that kind of vulnerability, social disinhibition, and desperate need.
(Conversely, itâ€™s not at all hard to imagine myself as a religious â€śexpertâ€ť hosting a bunch of guests to [respectably] discuss matters of theology. Why, oh why, are the people Jesus praises in the gospels so rarely smarty-pants types who have spent a lot of time studying, analyzing, and parsing the ways of God?)
The story is, of course, a story about grace. About recognizing oneâ€™s need for grace. About receiving grace. And, well, we Mennonites havenâ€™t always been very good at grace. Weâ€™re relatively good at knuckling down and following Jesus out of duty or obligation. Weâ€™re good at recognizing the importance of discipleship as opposed to mere belief. Weâ€™re good at taking the commands of Jesus seriously (even the really, really hard ones that everyone else ignores!). But grace? Well, weâ€™re kind of suspicious about grace. Isnâ€™t that what Lutherans talk about? Isnâ€™t it kind of like a crutch or excuse for other less committed Christians who donâ€™t want to do what Jesus said? Itâ€™s too easy, too cheap, as Bonhoeffer so famously said. And discipleship is hard (and magnificently virtuous!) work. Weâ€™re supposed to take up our crosses and follow, not just trust and believe and assume that grace covers everything.
On the drive home from that trip I listened to Mumford and Sonsâ€™ new album Babel. One of my favourite songs on this album is â€śBroken Crown.â€ť It is a haunting song that speaks of guilt and longing, of doubt and pain, of weakness and rage. One of the lyrics that stood out to me the first time I heard it was, â€śin this twilight how dare you speak of grace.â€ť I have often wondered about the nature of the â€śtwilightâ€ť in this line. Is it the twilight of a dying faith? Of (post)modernity? Of a specific transgression? Something else? What, I have often wondered, is the story behind this line, behind this angry refusal to speak of grace?
Whatever the case may be, I do know that Marcus Mumford is not the only one who has a hard time with grace. I have a hard time with grace. I donâ€™t dare speak of it oftenâ€”at least not in connection to myself. I know all about grace as a doctrine, as a theological necessity, as an expression of Godâ€™s truest nature. Grace is fine and appropriateâ€”necessary, even!â€”for others, but when it comes to myself? Well, I seem to assume that Godâ€™s just fresh out of grace. There are different categories for me. When it comes to me, God is interested in performance, competence, discipline, and strength. Iâ€™m a Mennonite, after all, and a religious expert, to boot!
No, actually. Not at all. I am exactly like that woman in Lukeâ€™s gospel. Vulnerable. Poor. Desperately needy. Confused. Full of sorrow. Sinful. My debt is too great to pay. I donâ€™t know nearly as much or perform nearly as well as Iâ€™d like to think. I am in desperate need of grace. Real grace. Not an imagined grace that says weâ€™re all basically ok and that God is a pretty decent chap in picking up the deficit left by our limitations, but a sturdy biblical, Christocentric grace that looks my sin squarely in its ugly face, pays a brutal price, forgives, and sends me away in peace. This grace, this is what I need.
Grace is not just something that makes theological sense; itâ€™s not just a doctrine to affirm. Itâ€™s not just something nice to tell others because we want them to feel better about God and about themselves. Itâ€™s a desperate, personal, existential need that we must speak of often. In the twilight of a flickering faith or in the broad daylight of the life of committed discipleship. Wherever, whenever. We need this. All of us. We dare not pretend otherwise.
Originally posted at Rumblings