Friday, April 21, 2006

Liberating Grace

Don't expect anything deep enough to merit the lofty title I gave this post. I've been working on my sermon for this Sunday (I'm preaching at our early morning communion service this week, my fourth return trip to a pulpit since I left professional ministry), along with cleaning up some older sermons trying to turn them into something useful. I've been toying around with the idea of writing a book, tentatively titled Drawing Water out of Rocks, a reflection of my approach to scripture. As a former pastor of mine used to say, as soon as he realized his tangent had gone on a little too long, "I say that to say this," I've spent too much time working on stuff not related to this blog for this blurb here to be much more than a brief observation.

Reading Troy's post on his early experiences with religion (a must read, by the way), I remembered some of my own early experiences with religion. I can't narrate them in any sort of comprehensive story like Troy did. I don't have that kind of self-awareness or mental energy right now. But I can give a couple of observations.

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor. [note: I need to clear up some confusion, for those of you who don't already know this. Sometimes I say that my grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, sometimes I say that my grandfather is a Southern Baptist pastor, and sometimes I say that my grandfather is a retired Southern Baptist pastor. The solution to this seems obvious, but it isn't. I am in fact talking about two different people, both of whom I consider to be my paternal grandfather. My grandmother was married to a Southern Baptist pastor, my grandfather, who died when I was in fourth grade. She then married another Southern Baptist pastor - evidently she didn't learn from the first time! - who I now refer to as my grandfather. He retired, but comes out of retirement from time to time to serve as an interim pastor for churches undergoing difficult transitions. Hence the confusion, which may exist only in my mind.]
His son, my father, was not very religious, so my grandfather was primarily responsible for my spiritual education. He taught me about God and the Christian faith, and helped me form my early non-critical theology. Then he died.

While I was just nine and a half years old when he died, I effectively became an atheist. The one who revealed God to me was gone, so, to me, there was no longer a God. My uncritical theology (a belief in whatever my grandfather taught me) was replaced by abject skepticism. He was dead, and as sure as I knew he was dead I knew that everything he had taught me had been a well intentioned lie. There was no God, no heaven or hell, no life after death, nothing. What you see is what you get, and you'd better grab it while you can.

I had a tremendous anxiety about death, but I have no intention of getting into that here, as I don't entirely understand it myself. Perhaps it was an obsession brought on by the contrast between what my grandfather had taught me about God, and the realization that the God that he loved and served had let him die so suddenly, leaving behind only questions and a grieving grandson. I really can't dig deep enough inside myself to arrive at an answer. Maybe there is no answer, there is only the reality of my anxiety. In any event, I was scared of church. It made the anxiety worse.

But by eighth grade I'd gotten over that, with the help of a girl, my first real crush. I was on the academic team at Morton Middle School (what? You thought I ran track!?!), and we had a meet at another local Middle School. On the opposing team was a cute blonde girl who smiled at me (a first). After the meet (or was it before?) she talked to me in the library. Turns out she went to the church that I was nominally affiliated with. I was a member, having been forced by my mother to go through confirmation class (Mom doesn't remember it that way, but this is my story) but I only went to church when Mom put her foot down and made me. But this girl remembered me from church, and wondered why I never went. I came up with some lame excuse, trying to sound cool. She invited me to Youth Group.

I knew she like me. I was wrong. She was just "witnessing" to me in the way that she knew how. It worked. I went to church just for the privilege of seeing her again.

If this were the story of my first "religious experience," which I used to call my "testimony" (as though there were a single point at which one got "saved," and as though there were a single salvation story) then I would give the long story of how I moved from being a lusty skeptic to someone who drank the religious Kool Aid but didn't die from it (or, perhaps, died and rose again, a new creation). But this isn't that story. I've told that story too much, so much that I don't even know what's true any more. When you are an enthusiastic teenager with some acting skills and a decent conversion story, you can find all sorts of groups who will listen to you tell your story - even and especially if it has been somewhat embellished - and give you the attention you desperately crave for it.

That's what my earliest experiences with religion turned into, a never ending quest for attention. The people at my church, especially those in and around my Youth Group, were very loving people. They saw my emotional needs, and saw it as their duty to try to meet some of those needs. They were, by and large, genuine, authentic people, who felt that God loved them and called them to love others. In that respect it was an excellent environment for me, very unlike my home environment (since I love my parents, and have a good relationship with them now, I won't get into the atmosphere of our house while I was a teenager; they did their best).

But they accidentally fed into some of my neuroses. The theology of that church, especially in and around the Youth Group, was principally concerned with sin and reconciliation. There was a real focus on universal human sinfulness, and the need for repentance. While we had a pretty full description of the word "repent" (not just to "feel sorry" for something you've done wrong, but to "turn around," or "turn away" from the sinful behavior) there was still a very emotional component to this. In order to fully repent, after all, one had first to feel sorry, to feel contrite. This was the way in which the Holy Spirit "convicted" you, so that you could then repent. Without this feeling there was no authentic repentance.

I was a depressed and depressing teenager. I wore all black, had long hair (some would call it a "mullet," but not to face face if they value their lives) and listened to hard rock, heavy metal, "grunge" and what is now called "emo." Like a good evangelical I constantly waged war against my fleshly nature. But, like every other teenager, I constantly lost that war. I was consumed by my spiritual battle, and consumed with guilt. This guilt, of course, had in that theological environment some merit. It was the beginning of spiritual depth.

I recall often talking to people at church about my feelings of self-loathing, using Pauline language. Most of the time they were impressed with my ability to see into human nature, to describe our spiritual condition, and to articulate my frustration over my innate sinfulness. I got a great deal of attention for it.

I was also often asked to pray aloud in public. My prayers also centered on sin, confession, and repentance. Often after I prayed people would, moved by my prayers, compliment me on them. Of course they didn't understand that saying "what a lovely prayer" took all of the spiritual value away from the prayer, feeding into a cycle of pride and guilt.

It was in this atmosphere, this theological and spiritual environment, that I met John Crissman. He was a college student, already married, and looking to help out with the Youth Group at my church. He started co-teaching a Thursday night Bible study with Paul Shafer, another hero in my life. I got to know him there, and started confiding in him. But he treated me differently. Rather than feeding into my feelings of self-loathing, rather than honoring this cycle of sin and reconciliation, he started breaking the pattern. He wasn't amazed when I articulated the wretched human condition, and how I participated in it. He understood how that theology was giving me permission to hate myself. Instead he started teaching me about grace.

Grace for John was not something conditional, not something that you earned by feeling a certain way about yourself or saying a certain prayer with just the right amount of contrition. Grace was not legal forgiveness for particular identified bad actions, called "sins." Grace was God's unconditional love, for me. Grace was God's accepting me as I was, and by accepting me, empowering me to change, not out of guilt or fear, but out of love. Grace was the power of God to break my cycle.

John taught me about the liberating power of God's grace. He also taught me that by thinking and feeling the way that I was, I was accidentally rejecting that liberating grace. He told me that God accepted me, and God loved me. Now I needed to love and accept myself.

John is not a theologian. As I've grown, in fact, our respective theologies have diverged a great deal. But John, because of his theology, and the way in which it has impacted his life, taught me how to love and accept myself, just as the theology which we share teaches me that God loves and accepts me. As such, John taught me two important lessons, which I hope to always take with me wherever I go.

1. What you believe about God impacts the way in which you approach everything else, and vice versa. When I was stuck in a depressive cycle of sin, guilt, and inadequacy, that shape how I viewed God. Similarly that view of God reinforced my negative cycle.

Our theology ought to touch our lives, and our lives ought to shape our theology. This business is not just academic abstraction.

2. How you give attention to people matters. This is particularly true, I think, with teenagers. John had been touched by love and grace, and wanted to share that with others. He came into my life at just the right moment, and motivated by love and grace, helped me to have a similar experience. Now I get to share that love and grace, that divine acceptance, with others.

Thank you, God, for John.

Thank you, John for being faithful to your experience of God, and for having such a constructive experience to be faithful to.


Troy said...


oh, you give me more credit than I deserve, but sincere thanks. Your blog is making a difference in how I think.


Troy said...


now that I've actually read's very good. I'm glad you found someone fairly early in life who was so positive for you.