Long ago, an English professor I studied under at the University of Kentucky said most writers really only have one story to tell. Hemingway, Faulkner and Welty may each have written multiple books, but they were just retelling in every book their one main story.
The story varies from writer to writer, my teacher said — for this writer it might be family dysfunction, for another it might be the traumas of war — but most writers only get one.
I’m no Hemingway, but I’ve known for many years that this principle applies to me.
In my private life, in my preaching and even in my newspaper columns, I’m driven by one overriding vision: I believe more than anything else in God’s grace.
Even on the days I don’t believe in God, I believe in his grace. (That’s a non sequitur, yet it’s true.) Grace tells me that when I don’t believe in God, he still believes in me.
I’ve written a whole book on grace. It’s been sitting for years in a file on my computer. I’ve never published it because a book-length manuscript doesn’t seem to be enough space to explain the depths and nuances and spiritual applications I see in this subject.
So trying to distill grace to a newspaper column is almost pointless. But I’ll try.
The New Testament tells us human beings are profoundly messed up. That’s not a popular message in some quarters today, but I believe it, not just because the Bible says it but because it matches pretty much my whole 63 years of experience on this earth.
The human race is screwy. We’re born with what amounts to a death wish.
We engage in all manner of counterproductive deeds and attitudes guaranteed to hurt ourselves and others, from overeating to drug abuse to gossip to murder to tantrums to lying to promiscuity to narcissism — the list is endless.
If it’s unhealthy, we crave it.
Yes, I recognize we also perform praise-worthy deeds. We’re not completely bad. There’s good in our hearts, too, maybe.
But we’re bad enough that, if we happen to be encumbered by a conscience, we labor through much of our life battling regret and self-loathing. If we also happen to believe in a holy God, we fear his wrath, because we’re unholy messes.
Paradoxically, pursuing religion and trying to keep its rules does nothing to lift our burden.
The more religious we become, the more we’re reminded of how short we fall. Rather than helping us feel better, religion — by which I mean the rule-oriented, condemnatory type — leaves us feeling even guiltier and less adequate than if we had no faith at all.
Holiness just isn’t a condition we can achieve by our own efforts.
That’s why Jesus plainly despised legalistic religious leaders. He said they heaped anguish on people by burdening them down with ever more rules, which only led to ever more guilt, while they themselves were unable to obey their own laws.
By contrast, Jesus said, he came to reverse that process. He proclaimed “the favorable year of the Lord” — God’s unqualified forgiveness, mercy and love toward adulterers, prostitutes, crooked tax gatherers, lepers and miscreants of every stripe.
For him, it was almost as if the worse you’d been, the better off you suddenly were.
If you were a sinner and knew you were a sinner and were sorry you were a sinner but were unable to do a dad-blamed thing to help yourself, Jesus gave you a free pass from God, a one-way ticket straight into heaven.
On the other hand, if you continued to be a finger-wagging prig, condemning sinners while pretending you were holy, you were likely to split hell wide open. There was no hope for you because you were refusing the only real hope — grace.
The whores and thieves would be dancing on heaven’s golden streets someday while you might be looking on from Hades, he said.
Jesus and his followers called his message the Good News. Because grace is very, very good news. To everyone except Pharisees.
Grace says everybody needs help. We all need forgiveness from God and from the people we’ve inevitably injured through our stupidity and malice.
Grace says that, happily for us, God’s love and favor have nothing to do with our individual perfection.
Instead, we can enjoy a wonderful relationship with the Lord and receive blessings from him because of who God is, not because of who we are. He simply gives us gifts.
God is, by definition, love, St. John wrote. It’s not only that he shows love, which he does. It’s not that he talks about love, which he does. It’s that he is love incarnate.
Grace also says that because this is who God is and how he treats us, we should treat other people the same way. We can recognize their issues but accept them despite all that. To the extent we show charity, we prove ourselves to be God’s children.
Grace says we’ve been set free — absolutely, eternally free — to live lives of gratitude, joy and compassion, and to become reflections of God’s unfathomable love.