Read an Excerpt
THE GRACE EFFECTHow the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief
By LARRY ALEX TAUNTON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Larry Alex Taunton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Steps
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked. "Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on til you come to the end: then stop."
—From Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
WE SAT IN MEMPHIS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, WAITING TO board our flight. My wife, Lauri, passed the time talking to friends on her cell phone while it was still possible to do so. A few seats away, Christopher, our sixteen-year-old son, was oblivious to the cacophony of voices, rolling luggage, and loudspeakers that are common to such settings. An avid reader, he was deep into Huxley's Brave New World. Zachary, the youngest of our brood, fidgeted restlessly and then, as though divinely inspired, looked at me hopefully.
"Hey, Daddy-o? How about some barbecue before we leave the country?" At thirteen, he wasn't much for either cell phone chitchat or Huxley's secular prophecies. He and our other boys had affectionately called me "Daddy-o" ever since giving me the screen name "Daddy-07" in one of their James Bond video games years before.
"Sure," I said, checking my watch. A Southerner both in heart and palate, it required little to persuade me to eat barbecue at any time. Christopher's audio-sensory filters, which worked to prevent anything he deemed inconsequential from reaching his conscious being while reading, had certain preset exceptions. All of them dealt with food.
"Barbecue?" he said, perking up. "Did someone say 'barbecue'?" A few minutes and a trip to an airport kiosk later, we sat eating our pork sandwiches, wondering what we would find ahead of us in the coming days.
Our family—minus our oldest son, Michael, who was then in college—was traveling to Ukraine to finalize the adoption of a ten-year-old girl named Sasha. Waiting for our flight, Christopher and Zachary saw it all as a great adventure. They had met Sasha the previous summer while on a short-term mission trip to Odessa. In fact, the whole family had met her but me. The work in the orphanage had made an enormous impression on all of them, and now, almost a year later, I was going with them to adopt the little girl they knew and of whom I had only heard stories and seen pictures.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we will continue boarding with our passengers traveling in business elite ..."
Business elite. Definitely not us. Boarding for our zone, which lay about a football field from business elite, wouldn't take place for another fifteen minutes or so. Nevertheless, the boys and I wolfed down what remained of our sandwiches while Lauri scurried to gather the carry-on luggage. Efficiency is part of an American's DNA.
"How long do you think we will be gone?" Lauri asked as we joined a growing line of passengers. It was as if she were seeking my prediction on the outcome of a sporting event.
"Hmmm ..." I tried to take all of the variables into account. "I'll say four weeks."
"We will continue boarding with our passengers seated in Zone 1."
Lauri looked hopeful but uncertain about my prediction. I was confident that we would be able to expedite the process once in Ukraine. A friendly conversation with the right Ukrainian official might help them see that it was in everyone's best interest to move things along. Sasha, a special-needs child, would greatly benefit from better health care, and to leave her in an orphanage even a day longer than was necessary seemed cruel, especially since she had been waiting a lifetime.
Over the years, Lauri and I had often discussed adoption, but something always prevented us from doing it. Now it was going to happen, and we were excited that a yearlong process was approaching an end. Viewed from the perspective of my work, however, this presented some difficulties. Adoptive parents spend an average of thirty-six days in Ukraine, and we were told to expect nothing different. I felt that I could scarcely afford that much time away. Furthermore, we had no control over the timing of our trip. Once the appropriate documents for adoption were submitted to the Ukrainian government, parents waited to be issued travel dates, and those are immovable—or, more accurately, the government won't move them. A refusal to appear when summoned is to risk the adoption altogether. One can imagine how this wreaks havoc on schedules. Hence, it became a contentious point.
"Can't you just go over there and get her?" I would ask Lauri. "The Ukrainians want us to come when I am supposed to be in China."
"No, dear, you have to be there too," Lauri would remind me.
"Brad and Sue adopted from Eastern Europe, and he didn't have to go."
"Brad and Sue adopted from Bulgaria. The laws are different in Ukraine."
"Next time, let's adopt from Bulgaria," I said, defeated and not planning on a next time. We'd had this conversation before, and the result was always the same. Frustrated, I looked for some way to follow through with the adoption while not abandoning my work. Reluctantly, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to go. I canceled the China trip, postponed engagements where it was possible to do so, and delegated what remained of my calendar. And as Lauri pointed out, since I would be free from the daily distractions of meetings and phone calls, I might find that I was able to accomplish a great deal in Ukraine. Multitasking, however, does not come natural to me, and doing such disparate things as fulfilling my professional responsibilities while daily seeing to the personal ones associated with this adoption some eight time zones away did not give me much reason for optimism. The two were, in my mind, utterly unrelated.
Cruising some 35,000 feet over the Eastern Seaboard, we settled in for the transatlantic flight.
"So, how are you enjoying your book, Christopher?" I had reread Huxley only a few weeks before and urged my children to read him too.
"It's pretty good." He looked up, holding his page with a finger. Zachary sat between us, playing an electronic game and wearing headphones.
"Yeah, that's why they call it a 'classic,'" I said with a smile, trying to draw out his opinion. "Can you tell me more?"
Chris looked up at the luggage compartment for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Well, it's not what I expected," he began. "I mean, I know that Huxley was an atheist, but so far—I'm only halfway through the book—it doesn't seem like he thinks a world without belief in God would be a very good thing."
"That's a perceptive analysis."
It doesn't seem like he thinks a world without belief in God would be a very good thing. Involuntarily, the conversation with Christopher Hitchens in the restaurant a fortnight before replayed in my mind. How does one quantify common grace?
At this point, it is probably important that I explain what I mean by "common grace." That God grants both temporal and eternal blessings to the Christian is—among Christians, anyway—axiomatic. My faith in Jesus Christ not only gives me hope through the forgiveness of my sins and the promise of eternal life, but also, through the work of the Holy Spirit, offers me guidance in the daily discharge of my affairs. When Christians speak of grace, this is usually what they mean, and while true, this does not mark the outer boundary of God's gracious activity. Common grace should not be confused with "saving" or "special" grace, which is a very different doctrine. One theologian defined common grace as that grace which "curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men." This is a rather theologian-like way of saying that common grace is that grace which may be enjoyed by believers as well as unbelievers, though the former understand its source. And it is grace because it is divinely given and undeserved by the recipient. It was this doctrine that the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote that God "is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe" (1 Timothy 4:10).
So, practically speaking, how does God achieve this? First, he does it by sustaining the natural order. The author of Hebrews wrote, "He upholds the universe by the word of his power" (1:3). In his address to the Athenians, Paul brought this concept down to earthly proportions, saying, "[God] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25). In other words, that the universe does not explode like the Death Star is due to God's providential mercy. And clearly that is of benefit to more than just Christians.
God also blesses mankind by restraining our evil nature. We are told that God has written his law upon the hearts of men (Romans 2:15). This law finds expression in the conscience. Conscience may compel us to help someone in need or to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, or it may lead us to the Cross itself. Conscience is the soul's voice. When contravened, it cries out.
Of course, conscience can be killed, according to 1 Timothy 4:2. Just as speed bumps on a road serve to warn drivers, so conscience works, jostling us from a moral slumber. Violated often enough, however, its voice grows fainter. When that happens and human nature is left to indulge its evil appetites, we become "filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice" (Romans 1:29). Thankfully, God further restrains humanity through government institutions, which are, in effect, a collective conscience (see Romans 13:1–7). And when those fail, Auschwitzes and Darfurs are the result.
But there is another form that common grace assumes, and it finds greatest expression in those cultures where Christianity has significantly influenced the public mind. In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul tells us that in a marriage where one spouse is a Christian and the other is not, the unbelieving member of that union is "made holy" through interaction with his or her believing husband or wife (v. 14). The presence of a Christian in the relationship not only serves to restrain the conduct of the unbeliever; it prepares him or her for a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This principle has implications that go well beyond marriage. Applying it to society as a whole, we begin to understand how common grace works. Here, common grace does much more than negate the evil impulses of mankind; it is a positive force for good. As one experiences grace in his own life, he extends grace to others. Through the inward transformation of the individual, there is a corresponding outward transformation of society. This is what I call the "grace effect." Simply defined, it is an observable phenomenon—that life is demonstrably better where authentic Christianity flourishes. Perhaps all of this seems too theoretical. At this point, it did to me, too.
Chapter TwoReality Check
"Toto, ... we're not in Kansas anymore."
—Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz
AS WE DESCENDED THROUGH THE CLOUDS AND OVER THE patchwork countryside, Kiev's Boryspil International Airport came into view. I had been in Ukraine several times before and had always thought that the airport, austere and something of a shambles, looked typical of the Soviet era. Alighting on the tarmac, the sleek KLM Boeing appeared oddly out of place. Lauri and the boys, exhausted from the Birmingham-Memphis-Amsterdam-Kiev journey, boarded the bus to the terminal slowly. It was mid-March, and the air was crisp under a brooding sky. Bouncing toward our destination, people checked messages and made calls, but they remained remarkably quiet. Colorfully attired (by Ukrainian standards) and talkative (by any standard), we may have been the loudest on that bus but for a couple of middle-aged men with their much-younger female companions. Thick-necked, sporting buzz cuts and skintight shirts stretched over heavily muscled and tattooed frames, they looked like Ivan Drago clones. Curiously, this type is ubiquitous to the former East Bloc. Their women, however, were another story altogether. Weighted down with bags from fashionable clothing stores, they had apparently been taken to western Europe by their muscular escorts to do a bit of shopping. Having returned triumphantly, they displayed their spoils ostentatiously.
Passing through the gauntlet of passport control, baggage claim, and customs, we entered the central terminus and began scanning the crowd for our Ukrainian adoption facilitator, Ivan. Although he was unknown to us, we were told that he would be wielding a sign bearing our name: Taunton. We saw nothing of the sort. No matter. With each of us rolling a Samsonite and everything about us proclaiming "American," we were easily identifiable to him.
"Larry! How are you?" A stout, dark-haired man emerged from a veritable midway of barking taxi drivers and extended his hand to me in a vigorous shake. "Follow me."
Ivan, like almost every other man in Ukraine, wore a dark leather jacket and took little notice of obstacles, be they human or automotive. "How was your trip? Tiring, yes?" he said, looking back over his shoulder occasionally but not waiting for a reply. He smiled broadly as he navigated the chaotic parking lot.
"How did you—?" I began.
"I have your picture," he said, shouting over the din. "It was e-mailed to me."
As we drove to the city center, he chatted affably about the weather, Russo-Ukrainian relations, and his experiences in America. "I love California," he declared, sounding oddly like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the process. For more than a decade, Ivan had been assisting foreigners in their adoption of Ukrainian children. Most of his clients were American, and their effect on him was noticeable. Ivan had developed a taste for more than the California sun. He had absorbed much American pop culture and was partial to American standards of living.
"So, what is first on the agenda?" I asked, noting a Led Zeppelin CD pressed between the seats.
Ivan checked his rearview mirror and then maneuvered the Czech-made Skoda into the right lane. "I will take you to your hotel and then pick you up tomorrow morning." A big Mercedes sedan accelerated past us. Eyeing it, he continued. "We will then go to the SDA [State Department of Adoption] and initiate the adoption."
"And then what?" Lauri, in the backseat, had anticipated my next question. Beside her, Chris and Zach shifted uncomfortably beneath the suitcases on their laps.
"And then, if everything goes well"—he shrugged—"you will travel to Odessa." The "if" was delivered in a way that only a Ukrainian (or a Russian) can manage and that we would become so accustomed to hearing. It is not a question of accent, but of mood. Where if suggests hopeful possibilities when an American employs it, the same English word conveys something like an anticipation of doom in Ukrainian usage.
Ivan gave me a sideways glance and then, after a moment's pause, began our orientation. The whole of his address may be summarized in a brief sentence: Lower your expectations. Before us lay a number of obstacles—trips to an assortment of government agencies in Kiev and Odessa; meetings with various government officials; a court appearance; passports and a visa—and if all went well, we might be able to leave the country in six weeks. It sounded like one of those exciting "adventure races" where people travel across the country, hitting various checkpoints, but one sponsored by the Department of Motor Vehicles and therefore neither adventurous nor much of a race, since time would mean nothing and the winners were all predetermined. I wondered how many times he had given this talk, demolishing whatever optimism new arrivals came with. Regardless, Ivan knew Ukrainian governmental inertia and American expectations of efficiency. The two were incompatible, and it was better to know it at the outset. It was a bit like getting off a bus, wearing a swimsuit and suntan lotion, and asking, "Where's the beach?" only to be told that you're in Iowa.
FACILITATORS ARE KEY TO ANY INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION, AND Ivan had come highly recommended. Natives of the country from which you are trying to adopt, the good ones—as Ivan would prove to be—understand much more than the language, local customs, and laws. In addition to providing translation of proceedings and documents, they liaise between prospective parents and government officials, with whom relationships are occasionally strained. By local standards, they are paid handsomely for their services, and because they work on behalf of their clients rather than the government, some resentment is inevitable.
Excerpted from THE GRACE EFFECT by LARRY ALEX TAUNTON Copyright © 2011 by Larry Alex Taunton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.