The Three Graces

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces

Last week, Bible Girl guest writer Laura Conaway wrote about her Southern Baptist upbringing and her journey from a "born-again congregation" to a "less rigid" Episcopal church where an outsider, "a woman married to a woman," found a spiritual home. Her faith, she wrote, had entered a phase "in which the humanity of Jesus became more important to me than the divinity of Christ." She concluded by describing how she saw Christ one day in the figure of a slight gay man who read the words of the Psalmist about being despised and rejected. "All who see me mock me to scorn, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads..."

Her column was eloquent, evocative and intensely personal—and, I might add, difficult to respond to in any but oblique ways. I suppose I could critique her emphasis on the humanity of Christ, an emphasis that, to me, allows many to dispense with a foundational concept of Scripture, that God is the "Almighty," and that to know him one must fear him. To fear him means that we "tremble" at his Word.

If you want to know my convictions on same-sex marriage, read here. But I'm more concerned about a misappropriation of the concept of grace, that foundation of Protestant theology and the basis for salvation in Jesus Christ. Grace is not mere forgiveness of sin, a blanket excuse for the parts of our lives we refuse to submit to God. It is power over sin. So to Laura I will respond with my own intensely personal but parallel thoughts—on grace and grown-up faith. --Julie Lyons


A Child's Grace
Every afternoon, the cardinal would perch in a tree outside my bedroom window. I'd hear its call, always the same, look outside and catch its dark eye. I knew he saw me.


My parents weren't getting along. My father came home from Vietnam, and I never asked why he was sleeping on a cot in the corner of my room. But kids have an almost feral sense of unease, and I knew somehow that my life was not firmly moored.


One day I heard the cardinal trill. "Look, there he is," I told my mom. Brushing past, going about the household chores, she gave me the kind of half-tuned-in answer moms give. "It must be an angel," she said. The answer satisfied me. I couldn't see God, but I accepted without reservation that he was there, somewhere. Now I had a token of his realness, my red bird. A word made flesh. A child's grace.


The cardinal was with me for a season. When my mother developed ovarian cancer and was hospitalized for weeks, and I came home from school each day to an empty house, he was my grace, the power to get me through. I don't recall taking notice, but one day the cardinal must have stopped coming. Or maybe we just moved. By then my mother had recovered, my parents had reconciled and all was well with the world for a time.


As I got older, I held to the religion of certitude I'd been taught, fundamental beliefs that hinged on "facts, not feelings," as any Bible teacher worth his salt would tell you. "Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so": Like every child brought up in an evangelical or fundamentalist church, I learned this simple chorus, this lovely, melodic tautology. But by my late teen years, as I struggled with depression, same-sex attraction, and the beginning of the end of my parents' marriage, I was aware at some level that my "facts, not feelings" had failed me.


I had outgrown a child's faith in a red bird. I was losing my way.

Cheap Grace In my jollier delusional moments, I imagined I was the cool Christian. I guess that's right in a way, especially if you read "cool" as "lukewarm"--an accurate characterization of my Christian faith. I loved nothing more than music. You could find me and my more adventurous friends from Christian college at the punk and New Wave shows that swung through town, at least the ones we were old enough to get into.

I heard T.S.O.L. tell us how they wanna eff the dead, I saw the skinny Stranglers, and I watched Fear fans literally tear apart a Milwaukee club called the Starship. And I stood in the third row when Chrissie Hynde and the boys launched into the smashing chords of "The Wait," amidst the glowing green eyes of gargoyles in the Oriental Theater.

I was so cool. It amused me how music fans mimicked the choreography of worship--you know, hands raised in the air, shouts and claps and all that. I stood at the margins, one foot in the fray, one foot out. I wanted to inch up as close as I could to the frontier of sin without getting burned. Instead I just got depressed.

I banked on my concept of Christian grace. It meant you could do whatever you wanted to do then shed a crocodile tear, and Jesus would forgive you, spritz you up and let you start another sin tab. You could call it cheap grace. It demanded nothing of me, which was fine, because there was nothing costly I intended to give.

I guess deep inside I knew there was a battle going on for my soul. I just figured I could pull out a victory before I got too old.

There was a particular moment when I looked around me, and all of the people I'd admired most had abandoned the ideals they taught me. The Christians I'd looked up to had gone AWOL from their faith, settling for a religious mediocrity marked by compromise at every turn. Their "facts," it seemed, had failed them too.

No, I wasn't involved in any of the big, juicy transgressions that make for sensational testimonies later in life. But I couldn't shake the crushing weight of my ordinary, everyday sin.

It was probably in depression that I saw my real condition, the filth of self. If that's the case, thank God for depression. Maybe it's a shadow cast by truth.

A Costly Grace At 23, for whatever reason, I'd picked up a $4.95 paperback called The Cost of Discipleship, written by the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was in his early 30s, not too much older than me. At the same time I grabbed that week's copy of NME. Told you I was cool.

The little volume with the plain green cover would destroy my faith.

Did you know that was a good thing? It would expose my Christianity for precisely what it was: a fraud. A sin-tickled Bible-hustling cheap-grace fraud.

Today Christians of the right and left have appropriated Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but no one should be so eager to cozy up to him. Faced with evil made flesh in the form of Germany's F�hrer, Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, set aside his pacifist beliefs and made a decision to take a life. He saw Jesus' words, "all who draw the sword will die by the sword," as a matter-of-fact predictor of the outcome. Bonhoeffer's life would end on a Nazi gallows, where he was executed in 1945 for his role in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. The camp physician at Flossenb�rg, who observed the pastor kneel and pray before ascending the gallows, "so certain that God heard his prayer," marveled that "I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

What confounds the left is that Bonhoeffer's faith was starkly orthodox, centered in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Theological liberals who would adopt Bonhoeffer always gravitate toward his later works, never The Cost of Discipleship, which emphasizes suffering, sacrifice and instant obedience to the Word of God. His grace is a costly grace--one that exacts as its price your entire life, with all of its ambitions, agendas and lusts.

The Cost of Discipleship takes as its structure the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pronounces blessings for the meek, the poor and the persecuted. To Bonhoeffer, the Sermon on the Mount, so often presented as an unattainable ideal—a list of noble goals to aspire to--was in fact a realistic prescription for life in Jesus Christ.

In a man or woman who'd been reborn in Christ, there should be found no untruth--none whatsoever. As well as no hatred. No worry. No jealousy. Just as Jesus' words about sin were unthinkable--"If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away"--so sin should be unthinkable to the believer, Bonhoeffer wrote.

He decried the "cheap grace" I'd been taught, the "sin license" granted by my once-saved-always-saved evangelical brethren. "Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church," Bonhoeffer wrote, at a time when the Confessing Church--German Protestants who refused to cow before the Third Reich--were in mortal combat with the Nazi regime. "We are fighting today for costly grace.

"Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner...Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world's standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin..."

Sound familiar--in a country where the majority of the populace purport to be "born again"?

"Christianity without discipleship," he wrote emphatically, "is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth...There is trust in God, but no following of Christ."

I could never adequately describe what it was like to read these words. Anything I'd say would trivialize. Imagine everything you'd ever believed ripped away from you at once, leaving a jagged-edged crater of meteoric size in your soul.

I couldn't sleep; my thoughts were tormented. I feared for the souls of my family members. I sifted my memory and asked if I'd ever known anyone who was really a follower of Jesus Christ, who loved like that. Who obeyed like that.

This is it, I thought. This is what I never understood, not since I was a 7-year-old girl adrift amidst perilous family circumstances.

Grace isn't some fuzzy notion of love and forgiveness, some feeling of pity for the sinner in his sin. Grace is anything but a license to sin; it is the power over sin.

The life of a follower of Jesus Christ will always be marked by obedience. "If you love me," Jesus said, "you will obey what I command." No one, in fact, who claims he's had an encounter with the living Christ yet purposely continues in sin "has either seen him or known him," John wrote.

Sobering words. For a sobering grace. --Julie Lyons



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