I've spent my adult life as a minister, and the main reason I've endured is that I believe more than anything in God's grace.
I'm often gobsmacked to find there are so many people who turn what the early Christians recognized as Good News into Very Bad News.
As I've written before, the Good News goes like this: Humans, including you and me, are deeply flawed. Try as we might to be perfect, or even mainly good, we fall short.
But God loves us anyway, and accepts us as we are. Recognizing his largess, we should similarly accept other people.
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The Very Bad News portrays God as a great judgmental scorekeeper who sits in the sky waiting for us to mess up so he can smash us with his hammer.
My dad used to summarize this type of religion as, "Don't do this and don't do that, and don't you tease and annoy the cat." (I think he stole that line from the king of doggerel, poet Edgar Guest.)
Bad Newsers labor under the burdensome idea that pleasing God means keeping an endless list of rules. If we can work our way through the divine checklist, we'll be OK.
The irony is, the harder we try to do everything just so, the more we come up lacking. We fail and fail. We're never quite good enough.
Guilt-ridden, fretful, resentful of ourselves, we turn our fury toward others. We point accusatory fingers. We become modern Pharisees.
I much prefer the Good News.
It says everybody needs help. We all need mercy. We all need forgiveness from God and from the people we inevitably injure through our stupidity and malice.
Take my aforementioned dad.
He was as sincere and tenderhearted a preacher as ever lived. He loved God. He loved other people, no matter their race, creed or station in life.
Going out to local restaurants with him was like dining with a celebrity. Servers, cooks and managers shouted his name when he came in the door and ran up to hug him. The servers argued over who got to wait on him because he joked with them and asked about their families and tipped them generously.
For him, loving others was part of loving God. He gave away every spare cent he made to poor people he thought needed money more than he did.
At the same time, he also was cripplingly insecure, an affliction that handicapped him in many ways. During a few periods, he was paranoid; he could see two strangers standing on a street corner chatting and think they were gossiping about him.
He also expected to be the center of all events — worship services, family gatherings, birthday parties. If it wasn't about him, he wasn't interested.
Yes, my father was as nearly a saint as any man I've met.
And yes, he could be a complete pain in the rear end.
Often he managed both extremes within the same hour.
He imparted to me blessings, insights and kindnesses.
He also bequeathed me scars, sorrows and resentments I still struggle with.
In short, my dad was human.
So were your parents. So am I. So are you.
We're all mixtures of virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses.
We all need charity from God, and charity from those around us.
Grace says that, happily for us, God lavishes on his children an unparalleled, supernatural love. He doesn't sugarcoat our faults, but treats us kindly despite them.
Grace says that, because this is how God treats us, we should treat others the same way. We can recognize their issues, but accept them despite all that.
Grace showed me I could equally acknowledge my dad's virtues and his flaws and, without lying or putting on blinders, simply love him as he was. (I hope that's how my own son — and wife and congregation and grandchildren — love me.)
Sad to say, but a lot of us only arrive at grace by failing spectacularly at legalism. By doing a moral swan dive onto our noses.
We err. We suffer. We inflict pain of various types on others.
If we're lucky, our failures leave us kinder, more forgiving and more mature.
But a lot of people in churches continue to think they're superior to those who aren't as holy or affluent or self-sufficient as they view themselves to be.
They assume they've done things the right way; if other folks would just shape up and act like them, they'd be blessed, too.
If you feel that way, what you really need to liberate your constricted, arrogant, little soul is a face-busting dose of disaster.
I don't say that because I wish you ill. I say that because I wish you well.
You need to learn that you're no better than any other reprobate. That you, too, hang by a thread. That you're entirely dependent on God's mercy and delivering power.
Typically, we have no idea how helpless we really are until life kicks the crutches from under our arms. We don't even know we're on crutches until they're smashed.
Then we discover grace in our time of need, as the Scriptures say.
Grateful for that aid, sobered, chastened, we find within us new wells of grace for our fellow men and women.