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 Modern Stories of Amazing Grace

    The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s so Amazing about Grace?” published in 1997.

 

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the

Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law---each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables—--which I will take the liberty of transposing into a modern setting.

 

1. A teenage prostitute

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents a bit old tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—--she calls him “Boss”---teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.

She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline “Have you seen this child?” But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—--a teenage girl at night in down town Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.

One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

     It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires, and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.

When the bus finally tolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech “Dad, I’m sorry. I know . .”

He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

 

2. An entrepreneur

An entrepreneur in Los Angeles decides to cash in on the boom in adventure travel. Not all Americans sleep in Holiday Inns and eat at McDonald’s when traveling overseas; some prefer to stray from the beaten path. He gets the idea of touring the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Most of the ancient wonders, he finds, have left no trace. But there is a move underway to restore the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and after a lot of legwork the entrepreneur lines up a charter plane a bus, accommodations, and a guide who promises to let tourists work along side the professional archeologists. Just the kind of thing adventure tourists love. He orders up an expensive series of television ads and schedules them during golf tournaments, when well-heeled tourists might be watching.

To finance his dream the entrepreneur has arranged a million-dollar loan from a venture capitalist calculating that after the fourth trip he can cover operating expenses and start paying back the loan.

One thing he has not calculated, however: two weeks before his inaugural trip, Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait and the State Department bans all travel to Iraq, which happens to be the site of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

He agonizes for three weeks over how to break the news to the venture capitalist. He visits banks and gets nowhere. He investigates a home-equity loan, which would net him only two hundred thousand dollars, one-fifth of what he needs. Finally, he puts together a plan that commits him to repay five thousand dollars a month the rest of his life. He draws up a contract, and even as he does so, the folly sinks in. Five thousand a month will not even cover the interest on a million-dollar loan. Besides, where will he get the five thousand a month? But the alternative, bankruptcy, would ruin his credit. He visits his backer’s office on Sunset Boulevard, nervously fumbles through an apology and then pulls out the paperwork for his ridiculous repayment plan. He breaks out in sweat in the air-conditioned office.

The venture capitalist holds up a hand to interrupt him. “Wait.

What nonsense are you talking about? Repayment?” He laughs. “Don’t be silly. I’m a speculator. I win some, I lose some. I knew your plan had risks. It was a good idea, though, and it’s hardly your fault that a war broke out. Just forget it.” He takes the contract, rips it in two, and tosses it in the paper shredder.

 

One of Jesus’ stories about grace made it into three different Gospels, in slightly different versions. My favorite version, though, appeared in another source entirely: the Boston Globe’s account in June 1990 of a most unusual wedding banquet.

 

3. A most unusual wedding banquet

Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to thirteen thousand dollars. After leaving a check for half that amount as down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to thirteen hundred dollars back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry. Really, I am.”

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party—--not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

     And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—--“in honor of the groom,” she said---and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

 

4. A vagrant 

A vagrant lives near the Fulton Fish Market on the lower east side of Manhattan. The slimy smell of fish carcasses and entrails nearly over powers him, and he hates the trucks that noisily arrive before sunrise. But midtown gets crowded, and the cops harass him there. Down by the wharves nobody bothers with a grizzled man who keeps to himself and sleeps on a loading dock behind a Dumpster.

Early one morning when the workers are slinging eel and halibut off the trucks, yelling to each other in Italian, the vagrant rouses himself and pokes through the Dumpsters behind the tourist restaurants. An early start guarantees good pickings: last night’s uneaten garlic bread and French fries, nibbled pizza, a wedge of cheesecake. He eats what he can stomach and stuffs the rest in a brown paper sack. The bottles and cans he stashes in plastic bags in his rusty shopping cart.

The morning sun, pale through harbor fog, finally makes it over the buildings by the wharf. When he sees the ticket from last week’s lottery lying in a pile of wilted lettuce, he almost lets it go. But by force of habit he picks it up and jams it in his pocket. In the old days, when luck was better, he used to buy one ticket a week, never more. It’s past noon when he remembers the ticket stub and holds it up to the newspaper box to compare the numbers. Three numbers match, the fourth, the fifth—--all seven! It can’t be true. Things like that don’t happen to him. Bums don’t win the New York Lottery.

But it is true. Later that day he is squinting into the bright lights as television crews present the newest media darling, the unshaven, baggy-pants vagrant who will receive $243,000 per year for the next twenty years. A chic-looking woman wearing a leather miniskirt shoves a micro phone in his face and asks, “How do you feel?” He stares back dazed, and catches a whiff of her perfume. It has been a long time, a very long time, since anyone has asked him that question.

He feels like a man who has been to the edge of starvation and back, and is beginning to fathom that he’ll never feel hunger again.

 

 

We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love. Each has at its core an ending too good to be true—--or so good that it must be true.

How different are these stories from my own childhood notions about God: a God who forgives, yes, but reluctantly, after making the penitent squirm. I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune. There is no solemn lecture, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson!” Instead, Jesus tells of the father’s exhilaration---“This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”—--and then adds the buoyant phrase, “they began to make merry.”

What blocks forgiveness is not God’s reticence—--“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him”—--but ours. God’s arms are always extended; we are the ones who turn away.

I have meditated enough on Jesus’ stories of grace to let their meaning filter through. Still, each time I confront their astonishing message I realize how thickly the veil of ungrace obscures my view of God. A housewife jumping up and down in glee over the discovery of a lost coin is not what naturally comes to mind when I think of God. Yet that is the image Jesus insisted upon.

The story of the Prodigal Son, after all, appears in a string of three stories by Jesus—--the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son—--all of which seem to make the same point. Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells of the thrill of rediscovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation. Jesus says in effect, “Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those two-legged humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.” To God himself, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.

Strangely, rediscovery may strike a deeper chord than discovery. To lose, and then find, a Mont Blanc pen makes the owner happier than the day she got it in the first place. Once, in the days before computers, I lost four chapters of a book I was writing when I left my only copy in a motel room drawer. For two weeks the motel insisted that cleaning personnel had thrown the stack of papers away. I was inconsolable. How could I summon the energy to start all over when for months I had worked at polishing and improving those four chapters? I would never find the same words. Then one day a cleaning woman who spoke little English called to tell me she had not thrown the chapters away after all. Believe me, I felt far more joy over the chapters that were found than I bad ever felt in the process of writing them.

That experience gives me a small foretaste of what it must feel like for a parent to get a phone call from the FBI reporting that the daughter abducted six months ago has been located at last, alive. Or for a wife to get a visit from the Army with a spokesman apologizing about the mix-up; her husband had not been aboard the wrecked helicopter after all. And those images give a mere glimpse of what it must feel like for the Maker of the Universe to get another member of his family back. In Jesus’ words, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Grace is shockingly personal. Henri Nouwen points out, “God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.”

 

If I focus on the ethics of the individual characters in the parables vagrant of Fulton Street, the businessman who lost a million dollars, the motley crew at the Boston banquet, the teenage prostitute from Traverse City---I come away with a very strange message indeed. Obviously, Jesus did not give the parables to teach us how to live. He gave them, I believe, to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves.

In the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice there hangs a painting by Paolo Veronese, a painting that got him in trouble with the Inquisition. The painting depicts Jesus at a banquet with his disciples, complete with Roman soldiers playing in one corner, a man with a bloody nose on the other side, stray dogs roaming around, a few drunks, and also midgets, blackamoors, and anachronistic Huns. Called before the Inquisition to explain these irreverences, Veronese defended his painting by showing from the Gospels that these were the very kinds of people Jesus mingled with. Scandalized, the Inquisitors made him change the title of the painting and make the scene secular rather than religious.

In doing so, of course, the Inquisitors replicated the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They too were scandalized by the tax collectors, half-breeds, foreigners, and women of ill repute who hung out with Jesus. They too had trouble swallowing the notion that these are the people God loves. At the very moment Jesus was captivating the crowd with his parables of grace, Pharisees stood at the edges of the crowd muttering and grinding their teeth. In the story of the Prodigal Son, provocatively, Jesus brought in the older brother to voice proper outrage at his father for rewarding irresponsible behavior. What kind of “family values” would his father communicate by throwing a party for such a renegade? What kind of virtue would that encourage?*

The gospel is not at all what we would come up with on our own. I, for one, would expect to honor the virtuous over the profligate. I would expect to have to clean up my act before even applying for an audience with a Holy God. But Jesus told of God ignoring a fancy religious teacher and turning instead to an ordinary sinner who pleads, “God, have mercy.” Throughout the Bible, in fact, God shows a marked preference for “real” people over “good” people. In Jesus’ own words, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

In one of his last acts before death, Jesus forgave a thief dangling on a cross, knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear. That thief would never study the Bible, never attend synagogue or church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said “Jesus remember me,” and Jesus promised “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It was another shocking reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.

Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, “Be good.” Jesus’ stories contradict that answer. All we must do is cry, “Help!” God welcomes home anyone who will have him and, in fact, has made the first move already. Most experts---doctors lawyers, marriage counselors---set a high value on themselves and wait for clients to come to them. Not God. As Søren Kierkegaard put it,

‘When it is a question of a sinner He does not merely stand still, open his arms and say, “Come hither”; no, He stands there and waits, as the father of the lost son waited, rather He does not stand and wait, He goes forth to seek, as the shepherd sought the lost sheep, as the woman sought the lost coin. He goes—--yet no, He has gone but infinitely farther than any shepherd or any woman, He went, in sooth, the infinitely long way from being God to becoming man, and that way He went in search of sinners.

Kierkegaard puts his finger on perhaps the most important aspect of Jesus’ parables. They were not merely pleasant stories to hold listeners’ attention or literary vessels to hold theological truth. They were, in fact, the template of Jesus’ life on earth. He was the shepherd who left the safety of the fold for the dark and dangerous night outside. To his banquets he welcomed tax collectors and reprobates and whores. He came for the sick and not the well, for the unrighteous and not the righteous. And to those who betrayed him---especially the disciples, who forsook him at his time of greatest need--—he responded like a lovesick father.

 

Theologian Karl Barth, after writing thousands of pages in his Church Dogmatic, arrived at this simple definition of God: “the One who loves.”

     Not long ago I heard from a pastor friend who was battling with his fifteen-year-old daughter. He knew she was using birth control, and several nights she had not bothered to come home at all. The parents had tried various forms of punishment, to no avail. The daughter lied to them, deceived them, and found a way to turn the tables on them: “It’s your fault for being so strict!”

My friend told me, “I remember standing before the plate-glass window in my living room, staring out into the darkness, waiting for her to come home. I felt such rage. I wanted to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, yet I was furious with my daughter for the way she would manipulate us and twist the knife to hurt us. And of course, she was hurting herself more than anyone. I understood then the passages in the prophets expressing God’s anger. The people knew how to wound him, and God cried out in pain.

“And yet I must tell you, when my daughter came home that night, or rather the next morning, I wanted nothing in the world so much as to take her in my arms, to love her, to tell her I wanted the best for her. I was a helpless, lovesick father.”

Now, when I think about God, I hold up that image of the lovesick father, which is miles away from the stern monarch I used to envision. I think of my friend standing in front of the plate-glass window gazing achingly into the darkness. I think of Jesus’ depiction of the Waiting Father, heartsick, abused, yet wanting above all else to forgive and begin anew, to announce with joy, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Mozart’s Requiem contains a wonderful line that has become my

prayer, one I pray with increasing confidence: “Remember, merciful Jesus, That I am the cause of your journey.” I think he remembers. (pages 45-56)

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