Growing up in church—almost always in church—grace was a much-discussed topic in my world and a much-emphasized theme in our beliefs. To be clear, we hardly left church. We spent our social lives there, lived next door and generally considered our church the hub of our world. Once, after fighting with my brother I decided I could not stand living in the same home with him. I moved out temporarily and inhabited a church office overnight. (I was rudely awakened and evicted the next morning, a Sunday.) Church was a sanctuary, a responsibility, an observing source of accountability and much more.
Yet in this community, grace, the central concept of our faith since we are apparently saved by it, was many angled. Apparently, church rarely has the sensitivity to allow this most fragile of doctrines to grow organically within. It did not always seem forgiving as I watched the faith-filled adults around me grow bitter and angry after divorces and damaging relationships. Grace did not seem like favor as my know-it-all nature compelled Sunday School teachers and youth leaders to enjoy and appreciate easier-going kids more than my opinionated self. Representatives of this core doctrine, my role models and elders instilled within me a sense of responsibility, a vague notion of morality and its many tenets. They developed within me a desire to walk life the right way. But also developed story lines remarkably incompatible with grace itself.
And so it is no wonder that, to a greater or lesser extent, I have been entranced with defining grace in recent years. I sometimes catch myself observing people longing to see signs of what I now consider to be an obscure doctrine, as easily talked about as difficult to define. For this writing I have chosen to explore grace, tugging at small memories, seeking to dig out from between the cracks of a life lived in church amongst people saved by grace and often unintentional exhibitionists of its beauty, the tiny indicators that would allow a redefinition. I offer these observations as a continued contribution to a never-ending conversation. For grace is more a person than it is a concept and that person, I am not.
Time and again, I realize that grace is found nuanced between more obvious choices. Two in particular come to mind: responsibility and escape. For in our desire to emulate our forbearers and make proud those watching, we easily choose responsibility, hoping upon hope that we may prove capable only to come to moments of failure requiring again some outlet of escape. Yet in between these options is exactly where grace exists. It entrusts rather than escapes and forgives rather than entangling us in more self-reliance. Grace allows the weakened soul to again find possible the opportunity of success. Our lives are lived in pendulum swings between obsessive responsibility and easy escape in a constant reacting.
Responsibility beckons like a false hope, entrusting ourselves too much and eventually sinking into condemnation. For believing that somehow we can live by rules has only ever broken us. Wishing for a better world, we take what that imagined world would look like and self-impose its imaginary guidelines upon ourselves. We imagine ourselves as contributors to society, proudly measuring ourselves against this ambiguous metric. Only to, in the end, find that broken pieces of ourselves remain still, stubborn and unyielding to any rule and these pieces do not contribute. Rather they withdraw damaging our world. We hide these pieces, hoping they are mere exceptions to the rule.
Responsibility, false and imprisoning, on one side and escape, seemingly freeing and fresh on the other… both are sirens surrounding us calling from craggy rocks and covered in a concealing mist of resentment, regret and brokenness. To remain in responsibility for some becomes unthinkable, our failures to obvious. To escape is euphoric.
Escape is the overreaction to our condemning world. When our spouses become difficult we feel ourselves judged and look for another. When our vocations become unfulfilling we long for Friday or escape into imaginative fantasy lands of our own design. When our minds become entrapping we search for diagnoses medicating away our sour-turned hopes and lessening God-given expectancy.
Grace alone frees us from our pasts while entrusting us with a future. Our call, as has always been, is one of stewardship: stewardship of gifts, finances, relationship, property, culture. It’s a remarkable list with which we have been entrusted. Escape beckons with a tantalizing removal from our misery but offers, as well, a concealed terrain of lost calling and acorresponding lost identity. Inour escape we leave behind the option of trust…mostly, we no longer trustourselves.
Grace is less prescient when entrusting stewardship is removed. It becomes a lesser thing for grace is then mere forgiveness absent of empowerment. It is a removal of past stains without the future we have been promised. And grace was meant to be so much more than merely a return back to rightness after failure; it is the glorious empowerment of people devoted to their God and his entrusting stewardship. Our best selves are found through grace and not merely as our sins, once besmirching, become white as snow. Rather as we take up the mantle of authority and leadership, once offered in Eden, we become the most we can be… our most human selves.
The delicate truth is more than a balance between two compelling and polarized possibilities. Rather, grace is a means of taking the best of both and living them out. Remaining trustworthy while no longer condemned. Gaining hope in our future while not leaving the past completely behind. Grace releases us to make mistakes while not requiring a complete escape. Grace empowers us to live beyond a rule-filled world empowered by Someone rather than something.
So here is to letting the patterns of our past go and choosing to no longer feel irresponsibly responsible. In false responsibility, our regrets grow and our beings shrink. We are held accountable—endlessly accountable—for each failure by minds that have been trained to keep score. But in our score-keeping we end up being irresponsible with the person God created us to be even as we responsibly uphold the imagined rules. Instead God offers the way of grace, responsible and free.