PART I: From Legalism to Vulgar Grace
Welcome to the inaugural post of The Soul the Draws Close. This blog is part of an experiment in living and faith that I intend to conduct over the next sixty days. And, if all goes well, perhaps it will be applicable to the rest of my life. (Sixty years more seemed a decent and realistic number, which is how it worked it’s way into the title. That and I am a sucker for alliteration).
This is in many ways a response to issues I have dealt with for many years. I have struggled with two terrors much of my life- anxiety and legalism. The former is a genetic gift inherited from many people on my family tree. The latter is the legacy of Catholic Sunday School and years spent in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Together they are twin horrors that stalk the mind and haunt the soul.
Years ago I began the process of breaking away from these constant thoughts. Thoughts that leeched away my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. My recovery began with the blessing of a loving and supportive wife. Yet, the anxiety still survived and the incessant pangs of legalism remained.
Those who have struggled with legalism know what it means. How it infects your relationship with God. Constantly thinking:
- Am I good enough
- Compiling a precise inventory of faults
- A good moment is just a trap and waiting for the other shoe to drop
- That I must watch every step as God was waiting for an opportunity to withdraw his blessings, protections, and even love.
If you’ve known the sting of legalism you are familiar with these attitudes. Destructive ideas that convert the relationship between the believer and God into a sort of dysfunctional relationship. An emotional exchange that hops, skips, and jumps well beyond the borderline, clear into an abusive relationship. Instead of an heir, the Christian becomes a son cowering in the corner waiting for a divine father to come home from the bar. Instead of a bride, the Christian becomes a wife waiting for her husband to stumble in at 2 a.m. angry about a thousand petty, imaginary grievances. Instead of a friend, the Christian becomes a child, lingering by his locker, dreading the inevitable, and frequent, moments when his schedule coincides with that of the school’s resident bully. God as an abusive father, wife batterer, and cruel bully; Legalists have done a great disservice to God. They turned him into a projection of their own deepest human failings or they sought to create a God vindictive and cruel enough to keep congregations from transgressing too far, too often. And that creation was what terrified me.
What truly began to break the chains of that curse for me was a Facebook post. A friend had shared a quote by a former Catholic Priest, Brennan Manning, on their wall. The quote crept into my newsfeed. My intent for the night was nothing profound. I was lazily scrolling down through adorable cat videos and adoption updates. It was then that I came across that quote. The quote itself sparked my interest. I pulled up youtube and searched “Brennan Manning.” Fortunately, many of his old talks can still be found there.
It was this exact talk above that I watched that day, several years ago. I felt like Paul kneeling before Ananias, as the scales fell from his eyes. The beauty of that moment is hard to capture in words. I wept for a long time that night. Yet, a lifetime of anxiety is not overcome in a night. It was not an exorcism of legalism- as much as that would have been desirable. Instead, it was a giant leap in the right direction.
There were three concepts I was introduced to that night and shortly after. Those three concepts radically began to change my life and my relationship with God
- Unconditional love
- Vulgar grace
- Relentless Tenderness.
Of these, it was vulgar grace that began to heal the pierced and bleeding wounds of my soul. Even outside of legalistic circles, Christians often treat grace as if it is a potentially dangerous weapon. Were others in the community to realize the radical nature of God’s grace they might mistake it as a license to sin. Heaven forbid! Instead, they put up boundaries around it. Prune its longest branches. Hide the flowers that bud and bloom. All to ensure that grace is something governable. And so a neutered grace becomes something just a little upsetting to worldly standards, but not too upsetting to traditional Christian sensibilities.
And it was that moment, God whispered My grace cannot be contained by the fears and anxieties of men. That realization threw open the windows and doors to my soul like a rushing wind. God’s grace is radical. It is, to those who would contain it, vulgar. And I knew then I was done trying to restrain and reject Christ’s offer of boundless grace for my bound soul.
The following is an excerpt from Manning’s last book All is Grace. It was published a couple years before his death. I think this excerpt is a beautiful and brief summation of the message he spent his life living and delivering.
“My message, unchanged for more than 50 years, is this — God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is the message of grace, the life-shattering gift my heart experienced in February 1956. It is the life-sustaining gift I remain broken by now in February 2011.
Some have labeled my message one of ‘cheap grace.’ In my younger days, their accusations were a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge. But I’m an old man now and I don’t care. My friend Mike Yaconelli used the phrase unfair grace, and I like that, but I’ve come across another I would like to leave with you. I believe Mike would like it; I know I do. I found it in the writings of the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. He calls it vulgar grace…
My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sake, yours and mine.
This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover.
Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.” – Brennan Manning, All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir (2011)