Friends, Romans, Countrymen: lend me your ears.

Earlier today I was watching a video by Tim Keller, a man I highly respect despite certain disagreements, and about 37 minutes in he gives this beautiful and rather spot-on  working definition of grace that I absolutely had to transcribe here.

Dear reader, particularly those of you that know me in person; please read this. I cannot stress how important this is. It is the axis upon which my entire life is based. If you think you know me and only know my personality, taste in music, homeland, family, circle of friends, politics, sexuality, sense of humour, school grades, fashion sense, what church I go to or even all of the above, but do not know the following, you do NOT know me. This is the hill on which I die. It is the narrative that has done and continues to transform my attitudes, words and deeds in humility and love. It implicates me in an ongoing process of stripping away my pride and judgementalness, and replacing them with selflessness. And if you read it and think “But Aideen’s a decent human being, she’s not a bad person or a sinner”, then you certainly do not know me.

There are two basic ways of thinking about your self-image. One is what I’m going to call a moral-performance narrative. A moral performance narrative is one which says “I’m okay, I’m a good person, I feel significant and I have worth because I’m achieving something.” So if you are a liberal person and you feel like “I’m a good person because I’m working for the poor and I’m working for human rights and I’m open-minded”, you can’t help – in a moral-performance narrative – you can’t help but look down your nose at bigots. You can’t help but feel superior.

On the other hand, what if you’re a traditional religious person and you go to church and read your Bible or you go to synagogue and read your Bible or you go to Mosque and read the Koran. And you’re working really hard to serve and love God etc. Now in that case you HAVE to look down your nose at people who don’t believe your religion and are not being as good as you are.

And maybe you’re just a secular person and you’re a hard-working, decent chap. You can’t help – if your self-image is based on the idea that you’re a hard-working, decent chap – but look down your nose at people you consider lazy.

But the Gospel is something different. The Gospel says: Jesus Christ comes and saves you. The Gospel says you’re a sinner. The Gospel says you don’t live up to your own standards. There’s no way you’re going to be able to live up to your own standards. The Gospel says that you have failed, that you are a moral failure and that salvation only belongs to those who admit their moral failings. And Jesus came in weakness and died on the cross and says “my salvation is only for weak people. It’s only for people who admit that they’re NOT better than anyone else and they just need mercy.”

If you have a grace narrative  – if you say the reason I can look myself in the mirror, the reason I know I have significance is Jesus died for me – you can’t feel superior to anybody. I’ve got a Hindu neighbour in my apartment building, and I think he’s wrong about the trinity, I think he’s wrong about a lot of things…but he’s probably a better father than me. He could be a much better man, why? “But aren’t you a Christian, he’s a Hindu, don’t you think he has the truth?” Yes but here’s the TRUTH! The truth is I’m a sinner, I’m saved by grace, so why in the world…? I’m not saved because I’m a better man, I’m saved because I’m a worse man, really!

And so what happens is the grace narrative takes away the superiority and removes that slippery slope that leads from superiority to separation to caricature to passive and then active oppression. It just takes it away.


Organic Leadership quote-a-thon

Looking over the last page of blog posts, I’ve noticed that only 30% of them are God-related (as opposed to 40% Lady Freaking Gaga), so by way of breaking the theology dry-spell I’ve decided to blog a few of my favourite quotes from the book Organic Leadership by Neil Cole. I borrowed the book off my friend Tom a while back and should probably give it back soon, so I want to drink its blogging potential dry before I do! The following is an anecdote he uses to back up the idea that the two most important skills for leaders are listening and asking good questions:

An organic-church planter in the Denver area decided to test these princples…Tim Pynes went to a popular coffeehouse in the Boulder area with a sign that read: “I will buy you a free cup of coffee if you will listen to my story about God.”

Tim sat at a table for hours with this sign, and never did anyone stop to listen to his story and receive a free cup of joe. Occasionally someone, who was sure he was just another obnoxious evangelist wanting an audience, jeered at him.

The next day Tim went to another coffee shop, very much like the previous one, but this time he brought a difference sign. It read: “I will buy you a cup of coffee if you will tell me your story about God.”

That day Tim’s time was consumed with people who were glad to just sit and share their story of God. Tim listened to people. He listened carefully. He never intentionally interrupted or shared his own point of view. He was there only to listen and would only share if asked. And he was asked, repeatedly. As people told him their stories, they were struck by his rapt attention and became curious about this man. Each asked him to tell his story, which he promptly did. Some left and told their friends that they needed to go to the coffeehouse and hear that guy’s story.

Tim remarks that he rarely had to buy anyone coffee; many times others would insist on buying him coffee.

This experiment reveals something that Jesus already knew at a young age, but most of us go through life never learning: people respond better to those who will listen to them first…Asking questions is not an admission that you are ignorant or lacking in knowledge. On the contrary, it can often mean that you are more advanced in learning.

This made me cry at work…

…and you’d best believe I *never* cry at books, particularly not theological ones! From Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God (page 18-20), an indepth look at the ‘Prodigal Son’ story from Luke 15:

…the younger son asks for his inheritance now, which was a sign of deep disrespect. To ask him while the father still lived was the same as to wish him dead. His relationship to the father has been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth, and not he is weary of that relationship. He wants out. Now. “Give me what is mine,” he says.

The father’s response is even more startling than the request. This was an intensely patriarchal society in which lavish displays of deference and respect for elders and particularly for one’s parents were of supreme importance. A traditional Middle Eastern father would be expected to respond to such a request by driving the son out of the family with nothing except physical blows. The father doesn’t do anything like that. He simply “divided the inheritance between them”. To understand the significance of this, we should notice that the Greek word translated as ‘property’ here is bios which means ‘life’. A more concrete word to denote capital could have been used but was not. Why not?

The wealth of this father would have been primarily in real estate and to get one third of his net worth he would have had to sell a great deal of his land holding. In our mobile, urbanised culture we don’t understand the relationship of people in former generations to their land…To lose part of it was to lose part of yourself and a major share of your standing in the community. We had all heard stories of powerful and successful CEOs, both men and women, chucking their whole careers in order to care for a hurting, needy child. While not an exact parallel, this is what the father does.

The younger brother, then, is asking the father to tear his life apart. And the father does so, for the love of his son. Most of Jesus’ listeners would have never seen a Middle Eastern patriarch respond like this. The father patiently endures a tremendous loss of honour as well as the pain of rejected love. Ordinarily when our love is rejected we get angry, retaliate and do what we can in order to diminish our affection for the rejecting person, so we won’t hurt so much. But this father maintains his affection for his son and bears the agony.

That last paragraph is where I choked up. I think I finally really love Jesus.

It reminds me a little of this bit from Rob Bell’s Sex God:

[The cross] speaks to us of God’s suffering, God’s pain, God’s broken heart. It’s God making the first move and then waiting for our response.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and had your heart broken, you know how God feels.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and found yourself waiting for their response, exposed and vulnerable, left hanging in the balance, you know how God feels.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and they responded, they reciprocated with love of their own, you know how God feels.

The cross is God’s way of saying, “I know what it’s like”…This is the God who holds out his hands and asks, “Would you like to see the holes where the nails went? Would that help?”