See I was raised in a church that gave lip service to grace but that held an awful lot of stock in how things looked and the things people did in order to be “good Christians”…God how that resonated with me tonight. It wasn’t nearly as oppressive as what Elaine went through but enough that I could identify with her. I was raised in a church that was so afraid of “cheap grace” that we settled for second class grace instead. Extravagant grace was so unfathomable that it was threatening. So we boxed God in with rules and law and settled for the safety of second class grace. I’m no longer willing to settle for that. I’m no longer willing to saddle others with that.
Eight years ago I got involved with a prison ministry called Kairos. Each team spent six weeks prior to the Kairos weekend in intensive team preparation part of which included training on how to listen without comment or judgment. Over and over and over again we were reminded that our job was to “Listen, Listen. Love, Love” Acceptance was critical if we were to be effective within the walls of the literal prison that the ladies we were sent to minister to occupied. Now you’d have to understand that my “life verse” is the passage of scripture that Christ nearly got stoned for proclaiming that it was fulfilled in their hearing, Isaiah 61:1-3
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…that was a big huge deal for me. Here we were though being told that the greatest work we could do, the greatest gift we could give was to accept, to listen and to love. Grace would do the rest.
Going inside that prison changed me. I sat at a table with four women two of whom were doing life sentences for killing their abusive boyfriends/spouses and I was brought face to face with the fact that literally there but for the grace of GOD went I. Before I started dating the man that is now my husband I dated a series of jerks. The last of those was horribly abusive. The night I fought back, it’s a miracle that I didn’t kill him, because I damn sure tried. I broke a broom handle over his head and shoulders beating him with it. In those women I saw how easily circumstances could have been reversed. I had been prepared that God’s grace was sufficient for their crimes. It was a small step to begin to ponder was it sufficient for mine?
After Kairos the idea that I had to “do” all this stuff, all the orthopraxy that I had been trained to nearly worship, seemed hollow. It seemed that we went into the prison and offered those women grace…real, true, transforming grace…but that we settled for a second class grace for ourselves. We saddled ourselves with rules and expectations and behavioral conditions that we would never have placed on those women, our sisters, to whom we sang every night before we left them to go back to their cells to bed:
“You are loved, you are beautiful, you’re a gift of God, his own creation…You’re a gift to all mankind, his gift of love to them, you are loved…God danced the day you were born. “
If this was true of prisoners was it not true of the rest of us?
If it was true of the rest of us was it not true of everyone?
Could it be that God’s grace is so very much bigger than we dare to dream? Could it be true that "It’s all grace or its not grace at all."
It seems to me that how we respond, what we do, what our orthopraxy is has to arise out of the freedom and security of Grace alone or it is nothing more than a works based faith trying to earn its own way to heaven. Do I believe in sanctification? Absolutely! I also believe that God alone knows the hearts of his children well enough to know what each individual needs to work out and work on and that we foolish mortals rush in where angels fear to tread when it comes to trying to fix the perceived sins and shortcomings of others. We need to work out our OWN salvation in fear and trembling and leave others to do the same trusting in God to guide us all on our own path and to finish the good work he began in us. It was a small step from refusing to settle for a second class grace for myself to refusing to offer only a second class grace to my fellow man.
And that’s how, by going to prison, I found the freedom to embrace Grace and let go of judgment and to trust God to deal with his other kids without my help. In that trust and freedom there is room to act with compassion. There is room to allow others their own path. There is room to live out Micah 6:8. To do Justly. To love Mercy. To walk Humbly. To live a life of first class grace.