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Five Practices of Fruitful Living
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReceiving God's Love
The Practice of Radical Hospitality
"We love because he first loved us." —1 John 4:19
"Accept that you are accepted." When I read this as a college student, those words by Paul Tillich jolted me into a new understanding of God's unconditional love. The pivotal first element in our walk of faith—the practice of Radical Hospitality—involves our saying Yes to God's love for us, a willingness to open our lives to God and invite God into our hearts. It involves our capacity to receive grace, accept Christ's love, and make room for God in our lives.
"Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?" Tillich asks. This was a provocative notion to me, an odd metaphor, to describe God's grace as something that strikes, that jars us into a new way of thinking, that collides with our old way of being. He continues, "We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace." The first movement toward the new creation, the transformed life, and becoming the person God wants us to be begins when we face the startling reality of God's unconditional love for us. Receiving the love and forgiveness of God, beginning to comprehend its meaning, and opening ourselves to the new life it brings can be as disrupting as an earthquake, as abrupt as lightening striking across the black night sky. It means we've been struck by grace.
The personal practice of Radical Hospitality begins with a receiving, perceiving, listening, opening, accepting attitude—a readiness to accept and welcome God's initiative toward us. It is sustained with active behaviors that place us in the most advantageous posture to continue to receive God, welcome Christ, and make room for grace. And so it involves interior decision and soul work, a listening and receptivity to God, as well as habits that transform us as we regularly, frequently, and intentionally make room in our lives for God.
Grace strikes at unexpected times, Tillich suggests: when we are in pain, feeling restless, empty, alone, estranged, or when we feel disgust, weakness, or hostility. It strikes us when other things don't work, when we feel directionless and useless, when compulsions reign, and darkness overshadows. When the ordinariness of life grinds us down, or the vacuity of the world's promises leaves us empty, when we finally realize our churning and churning is taking us nowhere fast, in such moments, grace comes to us like a wave of light in the darkness, and we perceive a voice saying, "You are accepted."
"We don't know the name of it at the time; there will be much to learn later," Tillich writes. We don't have to promise anything at the time, for in that moment we are fundamentally the recipients of a promise. We don't have to give anything; only to receive what is given. Our only and singular task is to accept that we are accepted.
You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.
Can you accept that?
God's love for us is not something we have to strive for, earn, work on, or fear. It is freely given. That is key: that we are loved, first, finally, and forever by God, a love so deep and profound and significant that God offers his Son to signify and solidify this love forever so that we get it.
The journey to becoming what God would have us to be begins with opening ourselves to this love, and giving it a place in our hearts. The journey begins when the God "up there" or "out there," the God whom we perceive as some philosophical abstraction, becomes a living truth and a love that we receive into ourselves. The welcoming requires of us an extraordinary hospitality, a radical receptivity, a willingness to allow God to come in and dwell within our hearts.
I first read Tillich's essay while sitting on grass near a fountain outside a campus library on a bright spring morning. I'd been active in church for years and was contemplating the call to ministry. I was rethinking the faith of my childhood and struggling with the normal things college students wrestle with. I was more clear about what I did not believe than about what I did believe. A student group at church was reading Tillich, a well-known theologian, and I was doing my assignment.
Tillich describes those things that separate us from God and one another. He writes about feeling unaccepted and about striving to prove, earn, justify, or validate ourselves. This resonated deeply with the feelings of uncertainty, pain, and struggle that I experienced as a student wrestling with the expectations of parents, the pressure of peers, the yearning to fit in, the desire to make a difference. His words somehow stimulated a rush of thoughts about life's meaning, connection, and direction. I kept looking up from the text to the fountain, lost in my own thoughts, yet soothed by whispers of flowing water. The Spirit was breaking through, stirring my soul, and moving me to deeper places.
Accept that you are accepted. In the moment that grace strikes, grace conquers sin. Lingering guilt that has grown tumor-like for years in the dark recesses of a person's soul can lose its deathly power. Grace helps us face the truth about ourselves, to embrace it rather than run from it; and by embracing this truth and offering it to God, we discover that God knows the truth about us and still loves us, and that God will shape us from this day forward anew. God's been waiting for us, desiring us to let him in. Can we accept that we are accepted?
Grace, when we really absorb its full meaning and consequence, causes us to rethink the direction and momentum of our lives, to change course, to break through the pretense and pride and see ourselves as we really are—utterly and completely unable by our own striving and effort to make it all work. The love of God pierces the veneer, breaks through the resistances, pulls us out of ourselves, and takes us into the deepest of mysteries of the spiritual life. Our worth is grounded in God's grace. When we finally get it, and open our hearts to the truth of God's love for us, we begin to receive glimpses of a peace that the world cannot give or take away, an inner assurance about our ultimate worth in God's eyes that surpasses understanding.
God creates us. God loves us. God desires a relationship with us.
In the revealing moment, our singular task is not to harden our hearts but to open them to God, to open our lives to grace, to receive, and to say Yes. Radical Hospitality begins by welcoming God in rather than slamming the door closed.
Have you ever been struck by grace?
Reading those words by Tillich more than thirty years ago, I could see so many of the events of my faith journey with greater clarity, the initiative of God's grace reaching out to me through the lives of many people. God has wanted in.
I experienced the feeling of life beginning anew, taking hold. In that moment, the rest of my life was given to me as a gift.
Accept that you are accepted. Open the doors of your heart.
A Look at Grace
Can you remember one moment in your life that changed all the others? Have you experienced an event that caused the ground to shift beneath you? Have you ever experienced the unexpected and irreversible unraveling of all the previous understandings of yourself and your world? What has been the most overwhelming and determining experience of your life? A love? A loss? A birth? A truth?
Accepting that you are accepted can be such a moment. Being struck by grace can prove such a time. Inviting God in alters everything. Love changes us, and through us, it changes others around us.
Scripture tells many stories of unexpected grace. Saul on the Damascus road, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, the woman beside the well, the worshipful Mary and her obsessive sister Martha, the man paralyzed beside the pool, the woman accused of adultery, the soldier with a dying servant, the thief on the cross—what happened to them all? Struck by grace each and every one, penetrated by the unfathomable and overwhelming truth of God's love for them, their self-images shattered and replaced with a whole new way of seeing themselves and the world, their old ways broken by an amazing grace. In both ordinary and radical ways, they opened their hearts to God and invited God in.
Through Jesus, God said Yes to them, and each in her or his own way found the courage to say Yes to God; and in that interchange, all things became new. God's welcoming of them was met with a new hospitality toward God.
God's love has a piercing quality, a persevering element, an assertive and searching aspect. God yearns for us, woos us, reaches for us. God's grace has the generative power to pardon, transform, redeem, and perfect, and it pushes and pursues. God's love is not something sitting on a shelf that we reach for, but a truth at the heart of life that reaches for us. God's grace interrupts with a compelling, propelling, motivating, and mobilizing quality. It has the power, if we let it, to break open our hearts, get inside of us, change us, and then work its way through us to others.
The experience and insight of countless of our forebears for hundreds of years is that when we delve deeply into the interior life and begin the spiritual journey, we seek what is true and good only to discover that something is seeking us; that in our yearning, something longs for us; in our desire to know, we find ourselves known. It's not that we love first, but that we are first loved. This active, reaching quality of God's love is what grace refers to, a gift-like initiative on God's part toward us. On the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo's famous painting depicts humanity reaching for God only to discover God reaching all the more toward us.
God loves you. Period.
And the first critical step in the journey of faith involves a Radical Hospitality, our opening our hearts to God's love, letting God into our lives to work with us.
Every person we admire, respect, and desire to emulate for their spirituality, wisdom, graciousness, service, and generosity at some point explicitly and dramatically, or unknowingly and gradually, decided to let God in. They said Yes to God's love, and opened the door to allow God in. They didn't have all their beliefs figured out, and maybe they still don't, but in their pattern of receiving, God stopped being merely an idea and became personal for them, a part of them, an element of their daily lives, a resident in their heart. They accepted God's acceptance of them, and allowed this truth to shape and change them, dramatically and quickly in some and gradually in others.
Paul writes, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8, emphasis added). Saved means that we come into a right relationship with God, becoming what God created us to be. Saved refers to our becoming whole, our living fully and abundantly the fruitful life. Paul says there are two essential and operative elements to this whole and right relationship with God, grace and faith.
Grace refers to the gift-like quality of God's love, the initiating power and presence of God in our lives. Grace is God accepting us, despite our rejecting or ignoring or rebelling against God's love. Grace is God offering us a relationship, loving us. It is the unexpected UPS package delivered to our front door with our name on it.
Faith is our acceptance of the gift, the opening of our hearts to invite God's love into our lives. Faith is our receiving God's grace, love, and pardon, and allowing these gifts to shape us and make us anew. Faith is the commitment again and again to live by grace, to honor the gift, and use it, and pass it along. Faith is accepting the UPS package, signing on the dotted line, taking it inside our house, unwrapping it, and discovering its treasure.
God's gracious love for us, and the capacity for that love to change our lives when we open ourselves to it, and through us to change the world—this is the central story of the Christian journey. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). This verse, the "Gospel in Miniature," captures the interchange between grace and faith and the new life it brings.
Jesus is the ultimate expression of God's grace, God becoming human in order to reach us and to make possible living abundantly, meaningfully, lovingly, and gracefully.
Frequently, we view God as some cosmic entity existing beyond our experience, removed from daily life, an abstraction of the mind. But the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ is not some passive general benevolence that leaves things alone. The God we see revealed in Jesus is the God of grace, an active, searching, embracing, assertive love. It is a strong, persevering, gritty grace that gives Jesus the power to embrace untouchable lepers, sit with outcast tax collectors, visit with forbidden strangers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is the steel courage to intercede against the violence and injustice of angry authorities on behalf of a woman accused of adultery. It is an earthy, practical grace that causes Jesus to kneel before his friends, take a towel from his waist and wash their feet, daring them to do likewise as a way of life. It is an unrelenting and irresistible grace that never gives up on either the hopeless and despairing or the rich and powerful. It is the disturbing, interruptive grace that overturns the tables of the cheating money changer in the Temple. It is the perceptive, affirming grace that notices the widow with her two coins, a father anxious about his epileptic son, a farmer pruning vines. It is the compassionate grace that embraces the victims of violence, and the persistent grace that steps into cell blocks with prisoners. It is the challenging, correcting, indicting grace that confronts unjust judges, self-justifying lawyers, unsympathetic rich people, and haughty religious leaders. It is the costly, sacrificial grace that dares to absorb the violence of humiliation, unjust persecution, and torturous death to reveal the depth of God's love for humanity.
The love of God revealed in Jesus extends to the outcast and the insider, the despairing and the self-satisfied, to the religious as well as to those who actively or indifferently reject faith.
Jesus not only loved people no one else loved, but his grace also extended to the unlovable and hidden parts of those who lived otherwise good and faithful lives. By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus symbolically touched the dirtiest, most offensive part of each person's life, demonstrating an unexpected love. Grace is God's loving activity embracing our lostness, brokenness, hurt, and rebellion, so that we may experience forgiveness, reconciliation, and liberation, which come only through our receiving this love into our lives. A radical encounter with the grace of God may not solve everything overnight, but many things remain beyond our ability to solve until we at least take the first step of accepting the grace of God and inviting God's love in.
The piercing quality of God's love disrupts people. It does not leave us alone and will not let us go. This love breaks through pretense, shatters previous self-understandings, reshapes priorities, turns the world upside down. Being struck by grace is not simply adopting a new attitude, feeling better about ourselves, changing our image, or giving ourselves a lift. The result of Radical Hospitality, a cultivated receptivity to God's grace, causes people who are going down one path to change direction and take another instead John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, discovered that even he himself could be unexpectedly struck anew by God's grace. He records in his journal a moment when the reality of God's grace pierced his heart, changing him again forever. "In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, in Christ alone for salvation; And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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