Posts Tagged 'William Willimon'

Chapter 2: Get Down Your Harps

“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)

“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)

“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV)

Rob Bell and Don Golden continue to insist, in chapter two, Get Down Your Harps, that God is interested in a relationship with his people. In this chapter, relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage. They also continue to insist that God’s salvation is much bigger than we sometimes want to admit-and that it has always been much bigger than the people Israel wanted to admit-that it is for all. But I wonder if perhaps the authors of Jesus Wants To Save Christians are not hinting at something else in this chapter, something Christians tend to overlook, something we tend to, however inadvertently, neglect and despise. Get Down Your Harps…it does make me wonder if they are getting at something else. I’ll come back to this.

But, and here’s the thing, in my estimation if your mind is not steeped in the New Testament you are not likely to make the connections that Bell and Golden are making subtly and not overtly. I fully grant, they are asking the readers to read between the lines-maybe that’s why they chose such an odd format-and figure out what they are saying. They want us to think about it, they want us to remember the New Testament. They want us to put two and two together and imagine the only way possible for these things the prophets spoke of to happen. They don’t need to come right out and say it because the person whose mind is baptized in the New Testament will have already figured it out before the end of the first page of the chapter. Some may not like this. To me, it is the essence of a great sermon.

I think it is a brilliant strategy. Those who are experienced preachers know all too well that there are times when you build the intensity as you go along. African-American preachers (at least the ones I have had the joy of listening to) excel at this art. The preacher keeps giving hints, clues, adding a piece here and a piece there, stacking words upon words, images upon images; sentences and paragraphs become large canvases upon which to paint other sentences and paragraphs. You tie it in at this point and leave it dangle at that point. You regroup, retrace your steps, go back and repeat it all over again. The intensity builds like the steam in a pressure cooker. You hold the audience on the edge of the precipice until they cannot help but cry out the “Amen!” And then the preacher says, “Gotcha!” And the listener cannot help but draw the intended conclusion without the preacher even saying it. There’s no escape.

Bell and Golden follow the Old Testament in this respect: “And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting” (72). They build the intensity page after page after page and like good preachers leave us dangling, wanting more, hungering for what we already know to be true: “What if David had another son?” they ask. We already know the answer; they need not even say him. But this is no let down. This is no shock. This is no surprise. They have been doing this since the beginning of the chapter. In this regard, they simply follow the Old Testament pattern. The Old Testament left us dangling, sitting on the edge, waiting for the preacher to drop the bomb. The end of the Old Testament makes us want to read the New. It leaves us hungry and with an appetite for more. But it never quite gets us there. It’s that old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” Ah, yes.

The mind steeped in the Scripture-they don’t quote a lot of Scripture verbatim in this chapter-will know exactly what they are getting at. But like good preachers in need of another sermon the next week, they leave us hungry and wanting more. We know the answer is Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I read this chapter. Page 65, for example: A new exodus, “Jesus!”; a new way, “Jesus!”, a new marriage with a new covenant, “Jesus!”; a new city, “Jesus!”, with a new temple, “Jesus!” Or page 69: a Prince of Peace, “Jesus!”; David’s throne, “Jesus!”; servant, “Jesus!” Or page 68: like Moses, “Jesus!” Or page 70: who would crush all evil once and for all, “Jesus!” Or page 67: a new heavens and new earth, “Jesus!”; wolf and lamb feeding together, “Jesus!”; salvation to the ends of the earth, “Jesus!” As you read this chapter, if you are thinking about anything but Jesus, you have seriously missed the point of the chapter. Seriously.

Now, just a couple of final points in conclusion, and, obviously, I’m not commenting on every single aspect of the chapter. They are unfolding a theology for us, chapter by chapter, and theology takes its time. The other day, I hate to do this, one of the commenters here wrote this: “From what I could discern, there is little emphasis on redemption and a focus on curing the world’s ills. I fear a moving away from the gospel, death, burial, and resurrection, and a moving toward a humanitarian message. Humanitarian expressions are vital to showcase God’s love, but only the gospel message can elicit faith and a genuine conversion.” (Rick) This may well be true, but that is not the entire point of the book. The book is written to those whose faith has already been elicited, and not necessarily to those whose faith needs to be elicited. And to the point, after faith has been elicited (whatever that really means), what are we to do with it, what should God do with it? Leave it sit? Leave it stagnant? Or shouldn’t that faith get involved in the story that God is telling and involved in the work that God is doing?

The book is not even about ‘curing the world’s ills’ as much as it is about curing the church’s ills and reminding us that, in Willimon’s words, ‘salvation and vocation go hand in hand’ (paraphrase). If we suggest this series of theological sermons written to Christians is a move ‘away from the gospel’ (which necessarily includes, death, burial, and resurrection) then of course we are going to object to the content. But that’s just the thing about this book. Even if, and I’m not conceding for a minute they are, but even if the authors have interpreted the Scripture in a way that is not ‘reformed orthodoxy’ they have done no damage to Scripture’s intent. They followed the apostle Paul’s dictum that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). They are not interpreting Scripture any differently than Paul did in Galatians when he wrote about Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael and mountains and faith.

On the other hand, it is about redemption. It is about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the prophets, Moses, David, the Psalms, and culminated in Jesus of Nazareth. They do not explore the ‘hows’ and ‘means’ of this yet because the Old Testament only gave hints and clues (1 Peter 1:10-12). But they do explore and explain the necessity of it, and the scope of it. It is this New Exodus that has offended some people, but it is there. Their job in the book is to remind us of the fact of our liberation, of our freedom, of our Exodus. They do a fine job of it, and point two below explores what they mean by this exodus they speak of.

Second, the authors talk about our bondage to sin. They describe this bondage as ‘Egypt’: “There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from. So when Isaiah speaks of this new exodus, he doesn’t just speak of liberation from a particular oppressive empire; he speaks of liberation from anything that oppresses anybody anywhere” (57). And they do a fine job of emphasizing the ‘all’. It’s what Karl Barth noted, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (as quoted in Willimon, p 38). This is also what the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned.” And just to clarify what Bell and Golden mean, “The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death” (57). That sounds strangely orthodox to me.

To go along with this is the emphasis that ‘All peoples will see it together’ (58, quoting Isaiah 40:5). The authors lay heavy emphasis on the fact that if all are held in bondage, all have equal access to freedom as God intended. This is the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and announced by Jesus early in his own ministry (Matthew 4:12-16). This chapter goes a long way to undoing any narrow ideas about salvation being limited to a particular nation or tribe: “By the rivers of Babylon, the prophets began to reimagine grace. They started to see what it would look like for Israel’s debt of sins to be paid. And what they saw was a reconciling grace so big, so universal, that it could bind all human beings into a brand-new way for the divine and the human to relate” (60-61, my emphasis). They thus rightly express this as possibility and not certainty. (Their argument is a little more detailed and contains much more Scripture, but I think this is the gist of their point. Some of you may wish to highlight other aspects of what they are saying, but rest assured, I did not personally pick up any hints whatsoever that this was a universal proposition guaranteeing salvation for everyone, everywhere. Thus the ‘could’.)

Finally, I’d like to explore their points about ‘marriage’ between God and man, the ‘forever’ aspect of the rule of the One to come, and what I’ll call the national reconciliation into one body of all all the peoples of the earth (Ephesians), but I don’t want this to be too long and any more cumbersome than it is already is. Their point about an ‘altar being built in Egypt’ is an excellent point and I think properly echoes what the New Testament says about Jesus in Philippians 2 and Revelation 7. Suffice it to say that these were the expectations, written in the prophets, that are easily overlooked and ignored. A fitting conclusion to these is found on pages 70-71, “What started as predictions about an earthly ruler exploded into an expectation of a divinely sent servant who would in some powerful new way rule forever…Israel’s failed marriage to God had never produced that child….The promise is so poignant because from the beginning, from the first moments when our primal ancestors began longing for a way out of this mess we’re in, the ache had centered around the birth of one who would crush evil forever.”

That is a very, very orthodox interpretation of Scripture (and I can point you to the lectures that prove it.)

I will close with this. The title, Get Down Your Harps, indicates that the harps had been hung up, left desolate, forgotten; put on a shelf and silent. “They hung up their harps” (52). “The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. People played the harp because they had reason to praise God” (52). This chapter begins by reminding us that we have been rescued. “If God freed people once before, couldn’t God do it again?” (54) The implication being, of course, that He already has! He has freed us! We have a reason to be playing our harps! And we are still acting like we are in exile; our harps are still hanging, we are still weeping beside the waters of Babylon.

Or worse, we are like the older brother who refused to go in and rejoice with the family when the younger brother came home. Or we are like Jonah who sat outside Ninevah angry at God for being forgiving. I certainly doubt we are like Jesus who wept over the lost Jerusalem. Whatever the case, I think Bell and Golden’s point in this chapter is to say: “Get down your harps! God has freed us! You know how he did it! You know who did it! Get down your harps, you Christians, and start singing, rejoicing, and worshiping God! Join the party!”

Like good preachers, they don’t say it in so many words. But we know who they are talking about on every single page.


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Part 2: The Cry of the Oppressed

“What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second” (NT Wright, Surprised By Hope, xi)

“God is looking for a body” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 34)

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)

It is easy to miss that verse. The prophet Hosea first said it (11:1-11). When he said it, he was talking about the people of Israel, the Israelites, the Chosen People. He was reflecting on the story of their national identity: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt; ruminating on the prospects of future enslavement in Assyria or Babylon. “The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal 3:6-14)” (DA Carson, Matthew, 92-93). So Matthew does just that by showing how Jesus, the Son of God, succeeded where Israel, the son of God, failed (see Matthew 4:1-11). The entire narrative is thus kept in perspective.

Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea, guided along as he no doubt was by the Holy Spirit, states, quite unequivocally that Hosea was talking about Jesus. Such a hermeneutic is spoken against in better homiletics and hermeneutics classes. If I were to stand up and preach such an allegorical interpretation of, say, the Exodus I would likely be branded a heretic or a liberal ‘liberation theologian.’ Yet Matthew looks back, finds a rather obscure passage of Scripture, in a prophet decidedly dwarfed by his contemporary Isaiah, and states boldly, loudly, formulaically: This verse is about Jesus and this before Jesus had ever even gone into Egypt let alone come out of it. “Not surprisingly the infant Christ, who summed up in his person all that Israel was called to be, was likewise threatened and delivered; and although the details differed, the early pattern was re-enacted in its essentials, ending with God’s Son restored to God’s land to fulfil (sic.) the task marked out for Him” (Derek Kidner, Hosea, 101-102; my emphasis).

The Son of God

I bring up Matthew and Hosea because this is the point of chapter 1 in the book. Consider:

” ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (30) “So when God invites the people to be priests, it’s an invitation to show the world who this God is and what this God is like” (31) “God is telling Moses that Pharaoh will see him as God, or at least ‘like God’? And this is not Moses’ idea; it’s God’s idea. What’s going on here? The answer leads us to a universal truth: God needs a body. God needs flesh and blood. God needs bones and skin so that Pharaoh will know just who this God is he’s dealing with and how this God acts in the world. Not just so Pharaoh will know but so that all of humanity will know” (31) “This God is looking for a body” (34) “God is inviting. God is looking. God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world” (34) “God was looking for a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like” (36) “Remember, God is looking for a body, flesh and blood to show the world a proper marriage of the divine and human. What happens when your body looks nothing like you?” (43) “God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44)

The authors keep coming back to this theme, this most important idea: Israel failed. They failed time and time again. They became slaves of the wrong masters: “Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul…Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (44, 45). Rob Bell and Don Golden are making a serious charge: The Church has failed (and likely will continue to unless some things change) to ‘look like God’ even as Israel failed, even as Solomon-the one held up as the prime example of said failure-failed. This is why the one who succeeded is called the ‘son of David’ and not, for example, the son of Solomon. Their exegesis and interpretation of Solomon’s lifestyle, his rule, his failure is dead-on the mark with the best scholars. Solomon, they note rightly, had become the new Pharaoh; Jerusalem, the new Egypt. Failure.

Their contention is that we have enslaved ourselves all over again. Commenting on the prophet Amos they ask: “God calls their church services ‘evil assemblies’? God hates their religious gatherings? When God is on a mission, what is God to do with a religion that legitimizes indifference and worship that inspires indulgence. What is God to do when the time, money, and energy of his people are spent on ceremonies and institutions that neglect the needy?” (46) The church, the son of God, the body of Christ, in other words, has become slaves of the wrong master. If Israel was the son of God (see Exodus 4:22-23) that failed, Jesus was the Son of God who did not (Matthew 4:1-11). Bell and Golden are asking: Which son of God are we, the Church, like? Their conclusion seems to be that we most effectively emulate the former not the latter. Can we properly worship a God when we don’t have in our hearts the same things that God has in His? (That’s what Amos was asking.)

God came down and set us free. He released us from slavery, ended our exile, concluded our captivity. As the Body of Christ, the ‘Son of God’, God expects us to be about the business of doing the same in the lives of those still in captivity: “At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God’s blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others” (44). This is what the title of the book means: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Why? Because we are slaves to the wrong master; because we have forgotten our story of liberation; because we have neglected the weightier things of the law. In a real sense, we don’t love. The church is so internally focused that we forget the suffering that is going on all around us. We sometimes so forget our redemption from slavery by God that we fail to remember those who are still there. We are so comfortable in our comfort that we forget to comfort the afflicted with that same comfort (2 Cor 1) we ourselves have received. Paul said it too: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10).

William Willimon wrote, “Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19)” (Who is Saved?, 54) I agree. Once we forget, we are lost. This is why we read so much in the Old Testament about the Exodus and why God told them to remember it: why the Psalmists sung about it, why the Prophets preached about it, why Moses wrote about it. They were never to forget who they were, where they had come from. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this very thing except that ‘remember it’ became ‘remember me.’ I wonder if we have forgotten? Bell and Golden are reminding the church, God’s son, of who we are: We are the liberated, the freed, the unleashed, the undone. We are the ones who were in a ditch, needing rescued and there are many others still there, still needing lifted up.

Sermons on Idolatry

This chapter is a long sermon, and a well done sermon at that. In it you will find an exposition of Genesis, Exodus, 2 Kings (Solomon), the 10 Words, Amos and 2 Chronicles. The authors brilliantly tie all these books together, as they should (see Carson above) and demonstrate the seamless narrative of God’s grace and love for all of his creatures, for all his created peoples. We are to learn from Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews) so that we do not fall into the same error as they did. I think the authors did a fine job of demonstrating that if we don’t pay attention to the history of God’s redemptive work, we will be doomed to perpetuate the same mistakes and sins that others have before us.

One of the better aspects of this chapter is the authors’ intent to deal with idolatry and do this well especially so in their handling of the Solomon narratives. They spare nothing when it comes to Solomon’s failures. They point out just exactly how far he fell: “Seven hundred wives? Three hundred concubines? But the point for the storyteller is not the numbers; it’s how his wives affected Solomon. They turned him away from God, and ‘his heart was not fully devoted” (41-42). I think we are meant to ask ourselves: Are our hearts fully devoted? In doing so, they warn us of the great and subtle dangers of idolatry. After reading their exposition of the Solomon story, I wondered: Do we talk enough about idolatry in the church? (1 John 5:21!)

The Messed Up World of the Oppressed

An important question to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to be the body of Christ, the son of God, on this earth? Are we prepared to be his people, on his terms? Peter told us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10). Peter then goes on to point out the distinctive way a people of God is supposed to live.

Bell and Golden are asking us: Are we prepared to live according the standard that God himself has raised? “The Hebrew Scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44).

Will we be that people? Will we care about the things that God cares about or will we continue to live in exile, slaves to our own passions, our own desires, and our own sins? Are we willing to do an evaluation and see if we are slaves of the right master? Didn’t Jesus say: You cannot serve two masters? That’s the gist of this chapter: If God has liberated us, what are we doing to liberate others? What are we doing about being God’s people?

You see, those of us who ‘are a people’, who ‘have received mercy’ know exactly what it is like to be on the other side: not a people, not receiving mercy. We know. We’ve been there. We understand. We can relate. But life is not just about understanding or relating or having been some place. It’s about more than just ‘learning to listen’, although that is surely a place to start. This brings us back to NT Wright: “First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.” Are we doing that? Does the first, our narrative, our redemptive history in Christ, do anything to generate and sustain the second of those two points in our lives?

I’ll close this portion of my review with a short story. In our community, we have an ecumenical food center. What started as a small project, with volunteers from all different congregations, has grown into a major ministry that, in November 2008, fed over 1,000 hungry people in our community. This is a ministry blessed by the Lord.

The food center directors recently learned that the rent-free space they have used for 2 years will no longer be available by May of 2009. They need a new home. When I heard about this, I immediately called and said: We have space. We really do. The entire bottom half of our ‘education’ wing is empty space being used to educate young bats on how to locate rogue mice. We don’t even heat it. What needs to happen is that space, sitting empty now, needs to be turned into a living, breathing, place where people can find hope in this present world; and a good meal. It needs to be converted into a space where 1000+ people every month can get food, find friendship, discover a body of Christ that love and cares for them when they are at the end of their ropes.

“Think about your life,” Bell writes. “What are the moments that have shaped you the most? If you were to pick just a couple, what would they be? Periods of transformation, times when your eyes were opened, decisions you made that affected the rest of your life. How many of them came when you reached the end of your rope? When everything fell apart? When you were confronted with your powerlessness? When you were ready to admit your life was unmanageable? When there was nothing left to do but cry out? For many people, it was their cry, their desperation, their acknowledgment of their oppression, that was the beginning of their liberation” (24). (See also Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p 53-54)

I’m getting opposition from people (sadly, the older women who only grace the threshold of the church building once per week) who are more concerned about the ‘loss of the space’, or ‘what if we grow and need the space?’ (not recognizing that opening a food center is growing, and is a need for space!), or ‘what about rent?’ or ‘what about the floors and traffic?’ or ‘what about clean up?’ or ‘what about the parking lot?’ or ‘what about the utilities?’ or ‘are you sure we should do this given all we have been through in the last couple of months?’

What I hear is: “How is this going to inconvenience me?” All I hear is: “God is not big enough to accomplish this here.” All I hear is: “I’m more concerned about holding on to space I don’t use, that we might need, than I am about hungry people in my hometown, who need something to eat and someplace to get it.”

I think that is kind of what Bell and Golden are ‘complaining’ about in chapter 1 of this book. And they are right to do so. If the church won’t be the son of God, the body of Christ now, who will? If we won’t be agents of mercy, ministers of compassion, voices in the wilderness calling out for justice, who will? The government? The politicians? The strong? The powerful? Bah! The church has already surrendered too much of its priestly role the powerful, the rich, the influential, the arms dealers, the generals, and the Caesars, the presidents of this world. I agree with Bell: God is looking for a Body. He has prepared a body, but when we are more concerned about holding on to that which isn’t ours, or spending on ourselves what should be spent on others, then we have failed.

That’s what God has created us for: Whatever it takes! Your will be done! Here I am, send me! That’s what he has liberated us for. Christianity, salvation, is not just about a place we go. It’s about who we are, what we do. “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation…We have been shown something that much of the world is waiting to see, even when the world doesn’t yet know for whom it awaits” (William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?, 3, 29)

The question is: What sort of God will we show them?

Next: Part 3, Get Down Your Harps

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I’ve been thinking about grace all week. I think I started thinking about it, intently, because the men at my church, last week, stood up and offered their unqualified support of my ministry. That’s the first time since I began full time ministry that has ever happened. It was moving, overwhelming; a powerful effluence of God’s grace. I had expected them to do so. What I had not expected was the pure grace that I understood and felt as a very quiet, humble man who was terrified to speak ‘in public’ spoke humbly and gently into the microphone in public and said, “We unanimously support Jerry.” Not ‘the preacher;’ not ‘the pastor;’ not ‘our employee.’ Jerry.

My year, 2008, began in a seminary class in Cincinnati. Doctrine of Grace with Dr Cottrell who happens to be one of my theological heroes. The class was rather boring as far as the lectures were concerned. And the format, 2.2.2, didn’t make it any easier. Long days. A lot of reading. Long drives to and from. But grace…ah, grace! A spring sun in the middle of Northeast Ohio winter! Sex after a bad fight. Peanut Butter cookies after a long walk on a tread-mill. Grace. How shall I describe thee? Let me count the ways. I’ve been thinking about grace all year.

How can we not? We are a strange lot of folk. I recently received a questionnaire from a church I had mailed a resume to. They asked all sorts of questions about baptism, church membership, The Restoration Movement. Not one question about grace. I don’t care about the Restoration Movement. I’m not interested in directing people to the ‘right church.’ I’m interested in God’s grace. This is what so many of us, I think, miss so often.

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden,
Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

I can’t help but think about it, but I’m the naïve type who enjoys seeing grace any place I can find it. Grace is a treasure in a field and I love searching for it and buying the field. I heard it on the radio too, on my way to the Middle School today. A commercial featuring a Dr Martin Luther King, jr. speech or sermon:

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant. Martin Luther King, Jr, The Drum Major Instinct, and Here.

It’s like grace is everywhere just waiting to be heard, waiting to be found, waiting to be seen. I’m surprised so many miss it. I’m more surprised more Christians fail to be captured by it. I am horrified that we Christians who have been undone by this grace keep it to ourselves.

I would like to draw a line between two stories that, for all intents and purposes, have nothing to do with one another. I doubt William Willimon knows Alexandra Stevenson; I am certain Alexandra Stevenson doesn’t know Willimon. And yet somehow I found in these two stories a connection. It’s grace.  Willimon’s story is about David, the great Israelite King, who committed adultery with another man’s wife and then, when she became pregnant, had the man killed. Willimon writes: (William Willimon, A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin, Theology Today, July 1993)

In short, David’s sin is revealed, by the prophet’s story, to be that of living as if he had no story, as if he were not already spoken for by Yahweh.

Yet, thank God, Yahweh’s story has the power to evoke that which it demands. David is able to name his sin, having been given the narrative means rightly to discern what is going on in his life. David’s response is not evoked principally by Nathan’s “you are the man” but, rather, by Yahweh’s “I gave.” Having been seduced by a false story of royal power, David courageously resubmits to Yahweh’s truthful account of the way things stand between us and a God who manages to be both truthful and gracious, a God whose truthfulness is grace.

There is still a high price to pay; there remain consequences. David’s family shall pay. Much death, much grief come after David’s repentance. Yahweh’s graciousness does not mean that our actions are without consequences. There is a high cost to doing business with stories other than truthful ones. And yet, despite the seriousness of David’s sin, the story continues, the story told because a gracious God is willing to intrude, to assert, and, ultimately, to forgive. David’s continued story is there, not as some “impossible ideal” to be heroically lived despite a renewed awareness of his finitude (Niebuhr). David goes on as a man who knows his sin because he knows his forgiveness. Although the child dies, David is spared, the family is continued in the birth of Solomon. So, this story of sin and forgiveness

Willimon notes that two stories collided here: David’s royal story in which he was seduced and tricked and Yahweh’s story spoken by the prophet Nathan. Willimon writes that David’s ” ‘I have sinned’ here arises out of a clash of narratives, a narratively induced awareness of a horrible disjuncture between David’s personal account of his life as king and the prophet’s account of David’s life as gift.” That is, everything in David’s life had been a gift. It had been grace.

What happened in the life of David, after the sin, was a collision of narratives. David had involved himself in another story, another narrative that was not God’s narrative. Willimon goes on to make this powerful statement, “Only by getting the story straight, God’s story of redemption, are we able to understand our sin with appropriate seriousness and without despair because only then will we know of a God who manages to be both gracious and truthful.”

So, grace.

There is another story I read this week too. It’s the story of someone famous, and someone trying desperately to be her own. It’s a very moving story told by Tom Friend at and it is the story of a man named Julius Erving and his estranged daughter, Alexandra Stevenson. (You’ll have to read the entire essay yourself. I cut and pasted it to MS Word and it still printed 19 pages. It was worth every last tiny bit of copier toner though. Tom Friend,, Outside the Lines, Hello Alexandra…This is Your Father

The gist of the story is that a long time ago, Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving had an extra-marital affair with a woman named Samantha Stevenson. She is white. He is black. She conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandra. In order to protect his image as a superstar NBA basketball superstar, a bunch of legal documents were drawn up and Samantha had to keep the affair and the father of the child a secret and Dr J provided monthly checks. Here’s what the relationship was like for the better part of a quarter-century:

She put her dad on a shelf and left him there for a quarter-century. Just because the rest of the world is preoccupied with Julius Erving doesn’t mean she’s had to be. She says she has never Googled him, that she has never even heard of “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” Instead, everything she’s learned about the man has come second- or eighth-hand. She first found out he was her father when she was 4, and she first started denying it when she was 5. She’d say her father died in the war or that he was a sheik in Kuwait or that his name was “Ken.” She didn’t celebrate Father’s Day, she celebrated Grandfather’s Day. On dad-daughter nights at school, she’d show up with an uncle or a neighbor. On registration forms that required a father’s name, she’d write “N/A” or “None Of Your Business!” Through the years, Dr. J wasn’t so much a secret as he was a figment of her imagination.

She had spent the better part of her life denying she had a father or concocting stories about alleged fathers. It didn’t mean Julius didn’t care, it meant there was a problem:

He empathized with Alexandra’s plight; she just didn’t know it. She couldn’t understand why, on her birthdays, there was never a card or a present. “Presents are big to me,” she says. “I can’t lie.” She had no idea he felt his hands were tied by his wife and the agreement, no idea he was an attentive dad to four other children: Julius III, Jazmin, Cory and an adopted son, Cheo. It was a shame, because both lawyers knew exactly how paternal Erving was and how maternal Samantha was. When Erving would visit Samantha’s lawyer, he’d sometimes bring little Jazmin along to play. And when Samantha would negotiate with Erving’s attorney, she’d always bring Alexandra, in a Snugli. Erving’s lawyer even held baby Alexandra in his arms. They weren’t one big happy family, but they weren’t coldhearted, either. They were simply separated by legalese.

Law stood in the way. Law kept them apart. Law separated them. It was an obstacle that cut a deep trench and prevented any sort of relationship at all. Doesn’t law always stand in the way of a relationship with our father? Eventually, she quit caring at all. Then she became famous herself and when she made a run at Wimbledon in 1999 the whole thing went nuclear. Someone, an outside agent, did some research, found the birth certificate, and set two narratives on a collision course. His name was Charles Bricker. He was the ‘prophet’ who blew the cover off the story. She had been living her story of denial, ‘none of your business,’ and prodigal. She had been doing everything she could, with her mother’s help, to deny and escape her true identity.

Sometimes, often times, always, we need someone to come along and blow our cover. We need a Nathan, a Bricker, a Jesus who will shred the mystery, shatter the glass shell we have cocooned ourselves inside, undo our safe narratives in which we are kings, in control; masters. We need someone to come along and tell the narrative, the alternative narrative, Yahweh’s narrative, that will set us on a collision course with grace. “At this verse occurs a collision of two narratives: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the ‘real world’ and a second narrative about Yahweh’s counter plans for the world” (Willimon). And that collision course inevitably has its own promontory point. “When our depravity meets his divinity it is a beautiful collision” (David Crowder Band).

Well, I don’t want to ruin all the good points, but I do want to say that the story has an ending (SPOILER) and it involves Alexandra and Julius coming together as father and daughter. “Part of me always missed her, missed not having her around,” said Julius. Friend notes, “…he’d preferred she make the first move, and now that she had, he wasn’t letting go.”

There are two lines in the story that I would like to conclude with as they are pertinent to this post. There’s a lot in the story that is truly illustration worthy, but I’d like to conclude by thinking about grace again.

The first line is at the very end. At one point during her young life, Alexandra had met her father at a basketball clinic. He had given her an autographed basketball, but he had acted as if he didn’t really know her. It turns out she had saved the ball and written on it. After the reconciliation, she found the ball and the words she had written on it had revealed another secret: She had always missed him. (Friend’s words.)

It seems to me that there are a lot of people in the world who are in the same boat. I think that is about grace. It’s like the prodigal son who couldn’t figure out a way to go back to his father until he was living with pigs. I wonder how many people in the world miss their father, but simply have no idea how to approach him? In Alexandra’s case, what ultimately drove her to her father was money (much like the prodigal son). And in both stories, grace prevails. I think people miss their father and they just have no idea how to get in touch with him. This is where grace comes in to the picture.

We have, not in the sense of being in possession of but in the sense of we have already been derailed by, the alternative narrative. We at least know the story that will set people on a collision course with the grace of God. We know the alternative narrative because we have already had our collision. We have already been undone. We have already been destroyed. The prophet has already come to us and showed us how we were living a royal life as opposed to the gift life. This is the story we share, the Jesus story, the grace narrative of what God is doing in the world and what he is doing to set it right. Willimon notes well:

Yet, the collision of narratives is not closed. These stories are meant to continue. Having been caught red-handed, trapped, one might think this is the end for David. Two things impress us about the continuing story: David’s swift, outright confession, “I have sinned,” and the prophet’s swift, outright pronouncement, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.” The collision of stories is meant to evoke this twofold, covenant response. David’s response is evidence of his submission, not just to the Decalogue but to the narrative, the covenant narrative. Just as we were prepared to write off David as a moral failure, the prophet’s counter narrative has evoked a new David (or is it the old David, in the best sense of the designation?) who is yet able to submit, to admit to the coherence and dominance of Yahweh’s account of things. Our story reads “autonomy.” Yahweh’s story says covenant.”

That’s grace.

The second line is found just before that. It’s a simple line about the new relationship Alexandra had been thrust into with Julius. They began communicating, but for her it was difficult. She was broke, without sponsors, “We know who your father is-pay up!” creditors would say. Julius said, “I trust you, and I need you to try to trust me.” Her response is nothing short of precisely the point of grace:

“Help me find a way to call you dad.”

Isn’t that the point of grace? Isn’t that what we do? When we open up the hearts full of grace and the souls full of love we are opening up the story of collision. This is what Nathan did. David had struck out on his own, tried to create his own narrative. Nathan came along and reminded him of the narrative to which he belonged. The role of the Gospel is to help people find a way to call God dad again.

I think we have that much to offer to people who are wandering around the earth right now missing their father. And until those of us who already call him dad understand this…well, they will likely continue wandering about without a dad. I believe that our role is less about creating so much despair in people, Lord knows they have enough of that already, and more about giving people words and courage and ways to call Him Dad all over again. What better can we do? What is more delightful to the ears of our Father than that not so subtle word, ‘Dad…’?

That’s grace.

Grace is something we cannot control. We cannot contain it. Grace cannot be directed or corralled. Grace cannot be stopped. The role of the church is to expand the scope of God’s grace not to contract it. If the role of the Gospel is to help lost sons and daughters find a way to call God dad all over again, do we think the Gospel is any less about God being able to call us sons and daughters all over again too?

As a preacher of the Gospel, the Good news, I want people to know about my Dad. I want to help them see their place in His story, in His working out the story of redemption. I want to help them not just have an academic definition of charis or a theological position on salvation or a membership in a particular denomination, but to have an experience of grace that demonstrates itself in their lives undone and redone. Those who are undone, those who have collided, can say Dad. I believe it is our job, our role, our calling to help people in this world find a way to call Him Dad much in the way someone helped us.

I enjoyed your special message today. It means a lot to know you’ve committed to being in my life. I will be in yours, as well. … You have captured my imagination with Alexandra moments, and I want to at least offer you father’s hugs, daddy’s kisses and parent support forever. I hope you are OK today and always.
Love, Dad

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