A Story Worth Knowing

As I left the store I noticed a piece of rubbish on the ground by a concrete wall. Except it wasn't rubbish, it was a hundred dollar note. I felt mildly exhilarated as I picked it up and examined it more closely. My friend from the store laughed with me as I realised it was a fake. In fact it is a gospel tract. 

I was intrigued at the creativity, but not thrilled with the message.  "If we've ever lied, cheated or hated, our soul becomes imperfect and we cannot enter heaven....we all deserve punishment for breaking God's laws." Googling to see if I could find the source of this novel evangelism tool, I came across an Australian version: "God sees you as a lying, thieving, blasphemous, adulterer-at-heart. The Bible warns that if you are guilty you will end up in Hell."

In days gone by, I have used lines not too different from these on evangelistic crusades or at camps. And I have to say I feel quite embarrassed about that now. Because the God I meet in Jesus of Nazareth offers so much more than this 'forensic' view of sin. According to Gabriel Fackre, a forensic view over-stresses courtroom issues of rules and penalties, neglecting resurrection, new life and hope,  and obscuring the open, self-giving personal God who invites humanity into a loving fellowship. These days my readings about the gospel and the missional church have led me to a more open view of the grace of God. Some might say this is treading dangerously close to universalism and/or hypergrace, but I think its a necessary counterpoint to our evangelical preoccupation with sin, and the  temptation to try and fix ourselves to get in good with God.

What has sent me down this track in recent days was a video of Brennan Manning a year or so before he died in 2012. The author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning  was a Franciscan priest and servant of the poor as well as a teacher and author. The main theme of his preaching was the deep love of God that we cannot ever deserve or earn. "Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind games, or pop psychology. It is an act of faith in the grace of God alone." He had a midlife battle with alcohol addiction and towards the end of his days he suffered other health problems. The clip from a 2007 testimony is a little hard to understand because his speech was affected by neurological problems. Nevertheless I found his story compelling, and I ordered a copy of the newer visual edition of his earlier Ragamuffin book, subtitled Good News for the Bedraggled,  Beat up and Burnt Out. 

There are some critics of Brennan Manning and his writings. They ask how a Christian priest could become an alcoholic and they worry about his teachings on prayer. But a wise man once said the story of how God moves in someone’s life is sacred turf. We may be curious or even concerned about it, but we must always respect it. It is their truth. That may sound postmodern but the Bible itself portrays a rich variety of human spiritual experience and a number of different pathways into faith. Some of us come into faith and discipleship via the intellect, others via emotions, others by Christian nurture and still others by simply serving alongside believers. We may wander into more than one room of the household of faith as we explore.  Our journeys are individual and their landscapes differ. But they all connect in some way with the Big Story, the story of Gods unconditional love, the Gospel of Grace. 

We are thinking about the Big Story in a series of Lenten sermons at Eastview. The material is based on an excellent new curriculum designed  by Ray Jones for the PCUSA, and called Engage. Part One is called Engage Gospel and it makes good use of Brennan Manning, Nooma video clips and James Choung's evangelism tool which is itself called The Big Story. I have used the last for some years now, but our hope for 2014 is that all in our faith community will learn to understand and  use it naturally, by drawing the graphics on a serviette or a sandy beach. I even have the mobile app now! What I like about Choung's approach is that is global rather than individualistic, it is inclusive rather than forensic, and it is invitational rather than intimidating. 

The simple series of circle graphics look holistically at the world as it is and as it was meant to be, and explain why humans have a longing to see evil overturned, our environment restored and our relationships healed. By contrast with that hundred dollar tract, this tool introduces a rich portrait of God as the One who made human beings to be healthy and hopeful, and who sent Jesus to restore a world damaged by evil. A God who is loving and gracious, not vindictive and wrathful. A God who, according the Big Story of scripture is not actually intent on punishing us ragamuffins. The story that God’s purpose is to restore humanity so we can have healthy relationships with him, with one another, and with our world. 

That’s a good story and a true one. It's a story worth knowing.

To Chew Over: Paul tells us to receive and experience the amazing grace of the Master, deep, deep within ourselves. (Phil 4: 23, Msg) How?

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o'er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o'er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
'Tis an ocean vast of blessing, 'tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, 'tis a heaven of heavens to me;

And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!
Samuel Trevor Francis.