This blog post is about grace, but you’ll need to stick with me for a few paragraphs before we get there.
My stream of consciousness starts on a discount air carrier that happened to be the only airline flying to my offbeat destination. I could have paid $100 extra for a seat in a row with reasonable leg space, but I decided to be economical instead and slither into the small crevice separating rows 9 and 10. Even before we took off the person in front of me reclined her chair, leaving me a total of 11” from my chin to the back of her seat. Yes, I measured. There is little grace in this paragraph, so I’ll keep moving.
For the first 15 minutes of the flight I felt quite sorry for myself. Working on my laptop was out of the question, and I didn’t have a book to read, so I closed my eyes and let self-pity wash over my soul.
Tight Packing: John Newton’s Struggle Toward Amazing Grace
Then I remembered the 18th-century slave trade that I learned about a decade ago while researching John Newton, author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Many slave traders of the day used something called “tight packing,” where slaves were chained ankle to wrist with almost no space to move. The conditions were horrendous, contributing to a fatality rate as high as 30% on some trips across the Atlantic. Thinking of this made it difficult to muster much self-pity for my 2-hour plane ride with no shackles, almost a dozen inches of unoccupied space between my fellow travelers and me, and a destination freely chosen.
My mind shifted to John Newton, and his profound understanding of grace.
But it’s complicated.
Christians tend to tell the Newton story superficially: he was a slave trader, became a Christian, felt convicted about his sin, then experienced (and wrote) “Amazing Grace.” In reality, Newton kept trading slaves for almost a decade after his conversion and the only reason he stopped was because of a medical condition. He did eventually campaign against the evils of slavery, but not until he had been out of that line of work for 30 years.
In my last blog post I expressed how much I long to understand grace. Newton, the slave trader, seems an unlikely place to look. But maybe that’s because we have confused grace with other nice things, like leniency or tolerance. Grace may require us to look long and hard at our undeserving nature, which sounds quite repressive and countercultural these days. It’s much easier to complain about an airline not giving enough leg room than it is to look honestly at how entitled I often feel, and how easily I elevate my personal comfort to a place of supreme importance in my mind.
Newton awakened slowly after retiring from the slave-trade business. He became a customs officer and began studying theology. The more he learned about God, the more he considered the horrors of his previous life. The story could end here, with a hefty rope and a noose, and some delusion that death is the ultimate penance for things unspeakable. But that’s not the way the story of grace ends. Not ever. Grace is comedy rather than tragedy. Grace brings hope and healing and changed lives.
Newton eventually became pastor of a church in Olney (a town in South East England) where he continued his journey of grace. His church grew phenomenally, apparently because he was an incredible preacher. In his letters, he writes that the purpose of preaching is to open blind eyes. …was blind, but now I see.
Newton later became an ally of William Wilberforce to fight against the slave trade in England. On his deathbed he proclaimed that though he was losing his mental faculties he remembered two things clearly: That he is a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.
Newton’s deathbed words remind me of the definition I mentioned in my last post. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian defines grace as “unconditional acceptance granted to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.” It’s not fashionable to think of ourselves as undeserving any more; but I wonder if we can really understand grace without that notion. Newton learned to lean into his regret, not in order to wallow in it but to see the depth of grace.
Who could doubt that Newton’s faith was at the center of his transformation? …I once was lost, but now am found.
3 Elements of a Grace Campaign
This is the last in a series of blogs about five studies my colleagues, students, and I are doing on positive psychology in church settings, funded through a John Templeton Foundation grant. Two of the projects are looking at grace, so we are working with pastors to design “grace campaigns” in their congregations. We have three things in mind: proclamation, study, and personal practices.
1. Proclamation. Preaching grace.
Whether in Olney, England in the 18th century or in contemporary 21st century churches, preaching is an essential means of Christian understanding and growth. Effective preaching can be like going to a good TED talk every week, but about matters of ultimate meaning.
Each of the churches we are working with will develop a sermon series on grace. But how else will people grow in grace?
2. Study. Learning Grace.
Small groups in each of the churches will delve deeply into grace by studying and discussing a book. Nothing is finalized yet, but we’re leaning toward James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God.
When thinking of study we may picture a person surrounded by books, yellow highlighter in hand, perhaps with an exam looming. I appreciate Richard Foster’s more inclusive understanding in Celebration of Discipline. For Foster, study involves focus. We might study a sunset or the wind moving a piece of grass. To study, we linger. We pay attention. We lean into a thing.
And so it is with grace. A handful of folks in each congregation will devote themselves to leaning into grace. They will read a book and talk together, and we hope they grow toward savoring the deep beauty of grace.
3. Personal Practices. Embodying Grace.
In addition to church services and study group meetings, some individuals in each congregation will engage in personal grace practices. These may be individual practices, or they may be done in the context of marriage or friendship. The point of the practices will be to keep grace in focus between meetings of the larger congregation.
Measuring Ordinary Ministry
If you’re thinking all this sounds like regular church—discussing grace, hearing sermons each week, talking about ideas in small groups or Sunday morning classes, and engaging in personal disciplines throughout the week—then you’re probably right. We’re not trying to have church be out-of-the-ordinary, but rather to see if the effects of ordinary ministry can be measured in a meaningful way with the tools of social science.
Ordinary church is exactly what we want because we think it probably changes lives more than we imagine.
I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s wise words, which are about both churchgoing and grace, though at first glance they appear to be more about sin:
If we come to a church right, we come to it more fully and nakedly ourselves, come with more of our humanness showing, than we are apt to come to most places. We come like Moses with muck on our shoes—footsore and travel-stained with the dust of our lives upon us, our failures, our deceits, our hypocrisies…
Some may come as former slave traders, others may come as self-absorbed travelers who feel offended by something as trivial as a crowded airplane. Either way, if we come to church right, we come ready to be amazed by grace.
Check out Mark’s other five articles in this series