This may not be what you normally expect from an episode of Spiritual Steps, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about what it means to experience intimacy with God during prayer, and how we manage our expectations of such experiences.
This episode offers a way of praying that helps us develop our perspective. Sometimes you need to see the forest, and some times you need to see the trees.
Any full accounting of the Christian faith has to include a story of grace, and how it works. Grace is a fancy old word for a gift, and it’s one of the most important words in the vocabulary of faith.
The Grace of Life
Most theologies of grace speak primarily of the grace of salvation, and principally mean how God saves us from our sins (and God’s judgement) through Jesus. While I think we still have some thinking left to do about the meaning of the atonement, an emphasis on God’s saving grace is a good thing! A missional theological lens doesn’t abandon this view of salvation, but broadens it—beginning with the beginning. Grace is not a newly developed attribute of God, although it is particularly demonstrated by Jesus. Rather, grace is present in the whole story of God.
In the beginning, we see God’s grace in the generosity of creation. God creates the conditions and space for life, and then gives life—this is how the story starts, and we do well to keep this gifting of life close as we consider what God is doing in the world. The story of grace offered in Jesus is not a departure from the story of God, it is instead the fruit of God’s commitment to stand by the gift of life given in creation. The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death.The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death. Click To Tweet
It is amazing how little Christian theologies reflect on this gift of life, when so much of God’s story revolves around God’s determination to stand by that gift and preserve it. A fully missional theology of grace begins with the conviction that God’s gift of life is good. This is central to God’s story and ours—we live, and this is grace!
The Grace of God’s Reign
God’s grace doesn’t end when human evil breaks the ordered justice that is conducive to life and flourishing. Rather, God acts to heal our brokenness, beginning with our sin and extending to other forms of brokenness in our world. When a fractured community is reconciled, an anxious heart finds peace, or a body experiences healing, these are experiences of grace. People are freed from oppressive powers and lay down their compulsions by the grace of God, and this too is part of God’s plan to redeem creation.
The missional story of salvation begins not simply with Jesus’s death, but with his life, in which the kingdom of God draws near. When we talk about the “kingdom of God”, we’re talking about how God reasserts God’s will in the earth, reordering it by justice and love, o that life can flourish as it was intended to. God’s reign is marked by justice, peace, and wholeness. The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign.The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign. Click To Tweet
The Grace of Mission
A further piece of grace in the missional story is obvious enough, but is the gift of mission to God’s people, both generally and to individuals. It’s often the case that people who receive God’s grace in the scriptures also receive some sort of commissioning, some invitation (or command) to join God’s mission. Peter (Luke 4) and Paul (Acts 9are the most obvious examples here, but those stories are really more normative than you might think—God extends one grace (forgiveness) with another grace (mission). Often, when I’m reading Paul’s letters, he seems to make no distinction between the two kinds of grace. They just represent the way God relates to Paul.
I want to unpack that idea of the grace of mission in a couple of ways, just for clarity’s sake. Think about the graces of inclusion and contribution:
The Grace of Inclusion
The grace of inclusion is the idea that God seems willing to invite pretty much everybody to participate in the mission. Luke’s gospel delights in this, as the religious elites are amazed to see the likes of Levi, Zacchaeus, and some disrespected women become part of Jesus’s movement in the world. Paul himself perceives this element of grace, saying in effect, “I was the worst, but God saw fit to allow me a place in the mission.”
The Grace of Contribution
In a similar vein, the grace of mission is not just that unexpected people are invited to become missionaries, but that God delights in providing the people what they need to participate. God gives gifts, (graces) to people so that they will be able to contribute to the life of the church and to the kingdom’s work in the world. Not only does God give missionary permission or invitation to people, but God provides the means for their meaningful work in the world. This provision is a powerful aspect of God’s grace that we don’t necessarily catch when we use “gift” to talk about something God gives us to use but shift to “grace” when we’re thinking about some theological change God brings about.
It’s all gift, all grace.
Agents of Grace
With these understandings of God’s grace, it’s important to note that a missional view of grace, humans who receive these forms of grace become agents of grace themselves. They become people who generously extend God’s grace to others in all its forms. They help people flourish and live, acting as agents of life in the world. They practice forgiveness, and stand for wholeness. not only do they participate in God’s mission themselves, but they welcome others into it as well. In living generously, the grace of God that has become wrapped into their story is unleashed on the other people around them, seeping into the cracks of the broken world. Missional Christians become people of Grace, modeling in their own lives what they have received from God.
The context in which you read a text can be just as important as the context in which it was written.
Three exercises for opening up the reading of scripture by shifting your reading context.
When we encounter other people, our incredible brains rush to process what they mean to us. It rushes to categorize the person, using the categories that we’ve set up over time. “Like Me”, “Not Like Me” are the most basic ones, and I heard a study that even infants show signs of using these filters. Over time we develop more sophisticated versions, although most of us retain that primal dichotomy as the “root directory” of our system. People fall into the “Like Me” or “Not Like Me” categories for a breathtakingly wide variety of causes, ranging from ethnic distinctions to the type of music the prefer, the sorts of foods they eat and the ways they would imagine our shared public life together. Not all of these are trivial.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe played with this pretty well with the “sorting hat” scenes. Sure, there’s some trivial stuff there, sorting people based on style—but it also carried character implications as well. One of the fascinating turns in the series was how Rowling later played on the stereotypes of the sorting—it turned out that the lines between good and evil weren’t laid out precisely as the early scenes seemed to portray. The failure of both heroic and villainous characters to realize that gave the stories serious emotional weight to play around with.
Our own propensity for categorization extends deeply into our religious lives as well, and we’ve been remarkably creative in our invention of divisions and distinctions. Dogma and practice each have their own way of cutting the deck, and style has its say as well in how we perceive the categories of religious practice and the communities that pursue them. Not all of these are trivial either—although some of them are.
Even within religious communities, within congregations, people who are gathered together, presumably with substantial common ground, there are plenty of ways to chop things up. Although Luther’s claim that each of us is simultaneously sinner and saint certainly has merit, we generally see the sinners and saints as different categories of people, and can find people in the church that match our conception of each without difficulty. Perhaps its the type of sin that we use to create the dividing line, or perhaps the intensity of its effects. I think the public/private nature of wrongdoing has often been a categorical marker, and there are others, too. It’s easy to peg a brother in the “sinner” category if he has some other “Not Like Me” markers.
One of the incredible features of the story of Jesus is his propensity to cut against these divisions, or to upend them. Jesus reminds the baffled religious folk that Zacchaeus is “also a son of Abraham”. He proclaims that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance—while making those very sinners his most trusted disciples.
Jesus has a different way of seeing people. He seems to have a particular way of cutting through the externals, the masks that hide people, and he has a way of seeing something more essential, more human. He ignores the lenses that would cast people in a favorable or unfavorable light, and sees them for who they really are. This shouldn’t be that surprising; we’ve known since the time of David that “humans look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
Perhaps it’s too much to ask that we learn to do the same; after all, we don’t have the same kind of access to the heart, do we? But maybe it’s enough for us to at least hold our judgements in check a bit, to recognize that what we see about people isn’t necessarily the whole story. If we can do that, we keep the door open for not only what God might do in their stories, but through us in their story. Holding back our judgements (or at least knowing that our conclusions are at best provisional and shouldn’t be held too tightly) allows us to be open to participating in God’s work. It puts us in a posture of missional readiness, so that we’re more ready to respond to possibilities. We’re ready for the opportunities to bless their lives that might come our way.
Try reading the gospels, one at a time, in single sittings. It takes a little longer than the normal way we encounter them, but it can enrich your understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him.
Host: Steven Hovater