It’s one of my eternal moments. Perhaps you have them too, those memories that live through the years. October 1987. I’m in Old Testament Survey in a second floor classroom of Peterson Hall facing SPU’s Tiffany Loop. The late Steve Hayner, then a VP at SPU and pastor at University Presbyterian Church (later of Intervarsity and Columbia Seminary) is unpacking the narrative of God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15:
[God] said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other…”
If you knew Steve, you are familiar with the ever-present, deeply dimpled smile that was a constant feature. And he is wearing this smile as he acts out the grisly narrative in the front of the classroom: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. Steve, his arm around an imaginary companion, walks through the imaginary pathway created by the imagined severed sacrifices, one half of each unfortunate creature on one side, the other halves on the other. Steve explains this was a customary way in which two parties in the Ancient Near East made a contract—sealing their agreement by walking together through the path of sacrifices, arms draped over the other’s shoulder, eyes locked, close enough they can smell the breath of the other, that dazzling Steve Hayner smile (I imagine) directed at the counterpart to the agreement, the implicit message: “You see these animals? So shall it be with you if you break our agreement.”
And then Steve drops the conceptual bomb that lives with me still:
The beginning thoughts are from one of the Rev. Dr. Dale Turner's Seattle Times writings, "Denial and Action are Keys to Finding Grace During Lent". Rev. Dale
Turner was a minister at University Congregational Church in Seattle from 1958 to 1982.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God
prepared beforehand to be our way of life. - Ephesians 2:10
Philip Yancey, editor-at-large for Christianity Today, travels a lot. He writes in his book What's So Amazing About Grace that for awhile he began asking the strangers he encountered what they thought of when they heard the term "Christian". He heard in reply mostly political descriptions, responses having to do with theological struggles taking place in the public eye, but not once a description that spoke of grace.
Yancey's book chronicles his own struggle with a tradition of legalism and a gospel that speaks of God's loving acceptance and pursuit of even the most unlovely. I'm sure we all have our own personal stories of church encounters that spoke or intimated the language of shame, guilt, and rejection much more fluently than grace. Mark Twain used to talk about people who were "good in the worst sense of the word."
More importantly though, I have been struck recently not by the damage done by un-grace as much as by the sheer power of grace to transform us and overcome and overwhelm so many hurtful experiences. Some conversations may be dominated by those moments of abuse or dismay, but we stick around because we've had, perhaps, just a glimpse or even more of that true grace we know lies at the very heart of our Creator and deep within the rhythms of life. We've seen the way that things can change when we'd given up hope - resurrection!
Grace breeds grace. We experience gifts and love from others, absolutely undeserved and our natural response is to offer it to others. Grace, like love, is never hoarded, but returns ten-fold. This, after all, is what we are built for.
the winds, the waves
the tides and gravity,
we shall harness for God
the energies of love.
for the second time
in the history of the world,
man will discover fire.
- Teilhard de Chardin
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.