We live in a culture that separates everyone into two categories: winners and losers.
There were twenty-four winners in Sunday night's Academy Awards. Conversely, there were 98 losers.
But at least they received nominations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 249,607 actors and other professionals in the motion picture and video production industry; almost all were excluded from the Oscars.
And yet, each of them is a winner in a way. They have a job in the film industry, unlike the multitudes who would like to work in the movies but don't.
Meanwhile, odds are being calculated for college basketball's "March Madness" tournament. As baseball's spring training continues, analysts are debating who is likely to win this year's World Series.
The underlying message is clear: if you win, you're a winner; if you lose, you're a loser.
"The smell of rain is grace"
Frederick Buechner is one of the most perceptive theologians I know. Consider his description of "grace," a brief essay so insightful that it defies editing:
"After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody's much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: 'Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.' There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too (his italics)."
Resolving the dilemma of our day
Our culture is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
On one side, we applaud self-reliance. We love stories of self-made heroes and icons, from business titans like Steve Jobs, who began in their garage, to athletes like Nick Foles, who go from underdog to Super Bowl MVP. We resist the notion that we need anything from anyone, including God.
On the other side, we have embraced the fiction that since God is love, everyone goes to heaven. The mantra of our day is that all roads lead up the same mountain, so it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you are sincere and tolerant.
Some critics of biblical Christianity complain that it makes a relationship with God too easy: "By grace you have been saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8) seems like an evasion of personal responsibility. Other critics complain that Jesus makes a relationship with God too hard: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) seems intolerant.
Believers can suffer from this dilemma as well. We can punish ourselves for sins God has forgiven, or we can ignore the need for confession and accountability.
Buechner addresses our confusion with one simple assertion: grace is a gift that, like all gifts, must be opened.
"Glad and generous hearts"
Imagine a church whose members lived in awestruck gratitude for the gracious love of God. Their joy in Jesus is so passionate that they must share it with others. It is so infectious that others want them to share it.
At the same time, these Christ-followers seek holiness in every dimension of their lives. They serve and live with godliness, not so they can receive grace but because they already have.
Could such a church actually exist?
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42-47).
Could such a grace-receiving, grace-giving church exist today? That's up to us, isn't it?
First published at the Denison Forum.