Awful Grace

But will you recognize my face/when God’s awful grace/strips me of my jacket and my vest/and reveals all the treasure in my chest?
–Joe Pug, Hymn 101

The first time I heard this song that last line just about knocked me over. I couldn’t believe how great of a lyric it was. The song itself is so peaceful and great, but I would listen to the song over and over again just get to that last line. It’s a hell of a great line. I immediately sent the song to one of my closest and best friends who is a singer/songwriter just to ask what she thought of it because sometimes I have a tendency to get great movement out of lines and books and works that others don’t get nearly the same thing as I do. But she liked it too—so I felt justified.

But time, as it can do, started to pile guilt upon me for liking a line that refers to G-d’s grace as awful when so many songs and verses usually use words like amazing. Shouldn’t I be offended by this? Shouldn’t I grab my [onward] Christian Sword and start slashing at this concept apologetically and angry that someone would call G-d awful? But for some reason Amazing Grace rolls off my back like water, but awful grace punched me in the gut so hard that I became obsessed with this thought and diving into it and trying to discover what exactly it is that speaks to me about this particular phrasing. So I did what I always do when I get to thinking like this—rather than getting offended and shutting off my brain, I tied up my laces tight and said…okay G-d, lets wrestle.

I hate Christianese speaking. I hate it with a passion. I hate all the bizarre and cryptic insider language we use to talk about spiritual things (that in my thinking no one on earth really knows anything about at all). I hate sayings like being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” and being “broken in the spirit.” I think one term for speaking like this is called metamessages, in which the speaker uses advanced and complicated words and phrases to talk down or confuse someone. It’s seen more as patronizing and arrogant. It makes the speaker feel better and smarter than the person they are addressing. And to me I think that really stems from pride and insecurity. But I’m just as guilty of it as the next man I’m sure. But that doesn’t make me hate it any less.

I think Christianese always stumped me. I remember asking, “If the Lord is such a good shepherd then how come we don’t want him?” and even to this day at 31 I can’t stand how that Psalm reads, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…” It’s confusing to me. So much of the imagery we use I don’t understand how anyone finds comfort in—especially at face value. For so many years growing up I…well, I can’t say I struggled with my faith because I think I was too young to struggle with it, but I was definitely confused. Heaven seemed so boring to me. I guess because the only example we have as a kid of what heaven might be like is church. And “grown-up church” was so boring to me. I think every kid remembers Family Sundays when the kids go to the beginning part of the service and then to Sunday school midway through. And you can’t wait to leave. I would hear verses about in Heaven you worship G-d for eternity and it seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. To sing O God Our Help In Ages Past forever. And ever. And ever. Like one eternal church service. And it’s scary to be a kid and secretly dread that idea.

I remember reading in a book once, maybe it was some DC Talk type book or a Daily Word pamphlet or one of those bible study mini books like Prayer of Jabez, something like that, and they wanted to paint a metaphor of how Jesus takes on all our sins as his own. I know they wanted to use it to comfort the reader but it was…well it was awful. They painted a picture of us, just recently dead and having gone to Heaven. And we stand in front of a wall, and on that wall are all these pieces of paper, I envisioned something like a sea of yellow post-it notes, and on each piece was one of our sins written out with our name signed to it. Every sin we’ve done. Josh curses for the first time on the playground in 3rd grade. Josh steals Choose Your Own Adventure Books from his 4th grade classroom. Josh can’t stop lusting after that girl when he’s 15 in church even though he’s supposed to be singing O God Our Help in Ages Past. Every lie to my parents. Every hateful word and thought. And that would follow everything bad we ever did. Josh gets drunk with a homosexual Australian, sneaks into a yacht club, and goes joy riding around the Hudson on a boat stolen for the night. And who knows the countless bad things I did today. Probably even since I started writing this article. And then Jesus takes down each piece of paper while you’re standing right there and reads it in front of you. Then, crying…because Jesus always seems to be weeping, he erases your name and writes in his own. FOR ALL OF THEM. And I am supposed to find comfort in that? That seems horrible. Horrible. That is what nightmares are made out of. Heaven seemed like Hell. And I know the concept is probably more of a guilt-driven idea to keep us from doing bad things but to me it had an opposite affect. I would have gone out and killed someone just to go to Hell to assure myself I didn’t have to face that. So after all that…I go into Heaven, and sing boring hymns for eternity? Oh yes, please, sign me up for that. Do I get root canals from drunk dentists with no Novocain for eternity too?

I never outgrew my hatred of imagery like that.

Why can’t we just be honest? Why can’t we just talk for real? Express that we don’t know some things.

And why is Christianity so obsessed with sadness and depression?

Most emotions make me uncomfortable. Largely uncomfortable. Fidgeting and anxious.  Crying especially. Friends know this about me. They always go, “No, these are good tears, because I’m happy,” and I’m like yeah, I don’t care, it’s still uncomfortable. But some people need to make people cry. Not in a bad way—but they don’t feel like a letter or a gift really made an impact unless it makes the other person cry. Maybe because it’s visual as well. I’m not sure what it is. I often get sneaky with my kind words or gifts. Say them from a distance, leave a letter when I know I won’t bump into someone—anything to avoid that emotional response. I want them to have the thought and feeling of warmth and kindness and love without me having to deal with their reaction. Even though it’s good. But that’s what drove me so crazy about all these church services. They turn the lights down low and they talk in whispers. The music is horribly depressing. And they just hammer down on us how bad we are and all the bad things we do—and they do this to make us dirt to show that G-d still loves us. That’s so dangerous I think. To the extent that it is done. I am always for being crucified by the Truth and feeling that sting of our mistakes so we know we don’t want to repeat them. I am very anti no regrets. No, not only regret the mistakes you do, but find a balance of holding onto them so they keep you from repeating it—but also you don’t hold them so tight that you form a numbness and repeat them again. But to hammer and hammer on people till they break seems so counter productive.

In college they would have these night services called Jacob’s Ladder. And it was just a tear fest. Jacob’s Blabber. I stopped going after awhile, not because I didn’t want to face these dark things I do, I know them. I carry them with me like a hole in my heart. There is a great scene in the second Hellboy movie where Hellboy gets stabbed in the chest with an enchanted spear and the tip breaks off. And any attempt to remove this only drives the blade in deeper to his heart—maybe that’s a great example of what it feels like to hurt people. So we know what we do. And you go to this service and they act as if they are illuminating you to it. But in the end you just go, “No, I’m not going to that. I’m having a rough day and Jesus really is just too depressing. I’m just going to watch Simpsons reruns tonight.”

The danger of these services were that people would cry and then leave melancholy. They didn’t leave feeling redeemed. But they felt it was okay because the service was “powerful.” But how can it be powerful if you go in there feeling terrible and leave feeling no better? I remember one friend would talk to me about how she wished she could go back and undo having sex in high school. She wished she could get her virginity back. She carried this hurt around cause she felt like a tramp or like a whore. Like she wasted something so precious and it ate her up most of the time. A conscious thought she couldn’t shake. Then you go to a church service and they just hammer down and down on how bad that is. And I just wanted to scream, “How about you teach us something useful! They can’t undo it so why harp on it. Teach them how to deal and learn and move on. Give them peace in Jesus!” Isn’t that horrible, though, when you think about it? Where would you turn for peace?

But Christians and churches love this sad imagery. It makes them feel like they are making progress. One night I remember so vividly—it was probably the last day I attended any service like this. But I was sitting on the bleachers in the gym and the lights were low and the music was all in minor keys and it seemed like Hell in the sense there were so many people just audibly waling and crying. And I was in the bleachers trying to block it out and get to a place of almost-numbness, that’s the best way I can describe it. Something used to happen to me when I was young and we were singing some older hymns in church, those real good ones. The ones that aren’t super perky fluff nonsense like Shine Jesus Shine but more along the lines of It Is Well With My Soul or Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and I would sing it standing in the pew and close my eyes and I would get these pins and needles over my body and it was like I could feel my breath moving through my body, not just filling up my lungs but just oxygen moving through my whole body. And I would remember feeling big, bigger than the church like I was looking down on the tops of the heads of everyone around me. But at the same time I felt incredibly small. Like not even up to the heel of the people around me. It was an almost-numbness.

So I am in the bleachers of this nonsense service at my school and I am trying to get to that place—it’s a place you can’t “get to” because it always just grabs you. And I put the hood of my sweatshirt up and rest my arms across my knees and put my head down on my arms. And I am sitting there head down for awhile. And I feel a tap on my shoulder. When I look up there is this girl standing over me. She tilts her head and lowers her voice and softens her eyes and goes, “Joshua, are you okay?” “Yeah, I am fine, thank you.” “Are you sure, you look sad?” “No I’m fine, thank you. Really.” She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Are you in the process of being broken?”—that is no joke. She said those words. Are you in the process of being broken. “No.” It was hard for me to show how annoyed I was. But she kept going “It’s okay if you are. It’s good.” And now I know in movies like Good Will Hunting the character of the doctor says “It’s not your fault,” and Will goes “I know.” And the doctor keeps at it until he gets through to Will and Will cries and hugs him. Maybe she was going for that—but it’s not like that. It wasn’t even close. “It’s okay Joshua.” I know it’s okay. But I’m not being broken. Just leave me alone. Of course I didn’t say that. I don’t remember how I got out of it. I might have just placated her, or I might have rudely walked away. I don’t remember that part. Because that’s not the important part. The point is this obsession with sadness making things important. Making G-d’s love important. But that’s just as stupid as the day is long.

We are told of men just dropping everything they are doing and following Jesus. Multitudes of people coming to hear him talk. His entry into Jerusalem is so joyous that the priests and scribes beg for them to shut up. So joyous that Jesus says that even if they were quiet that the inanimate objects in nature would take up their mantles and continue to celebrate and make a ruckus. Shouldn’t G-d’s love set us on fire? Have you ever loved someone and then you find out they love you back and in that moment you literally feel like you could jump kick clear over a mountain…but Jesus’ love makes us cry and depressed? Why is his grace so awful?

I don’t feel that not focusing on how horrible we are makes his love for us any less special. We don’t have to constantly lower our bar just to make his look higher. The bar of his love is so high it doesn’t need our help. Nothing G-d does or is needs our help. In fact humans can only hinder his bar and his example. His love is his love and not what is said of his love. His love is the thing.

Laugh with those who are laughing, and mourn with those who mourn. The Bible says that, right? It doesn’t say, find those who are laughing and make them mourn. If someone is down, be with them. Sit with them. Shut up for a moment so that G-d can speak through you without you getting in the way. But if they are laughing, laugh all of G-d’s joy with them. But we have this obsession with being sad. The singer Daniel Johnston has a great line that probably explains why we do that, why we want  to lower our bar so G-d’s seems higher: When the sun shines down on me, I want to feel like I deserve it. When the sun shines down on me, I feel like I have to earn it. Man, that’s so great. But we get like that don’t we? So we just emphasize how horrible of a state we are as people.

Breaking people isn’t the only Chrisitianese thing we do as believers. We have other phrases that cloud his grace. And we use them to further ourselves from people we think are not as good as us maybe. We all know “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This is a real practice. What does the sin have to do with the sinner? We just use that as a hierarchy to lift ourselves up. How about we just love the sinner. Done. End of story. Love the sinner and not care about the sin. Their sin is none of our concern.  Even if we want to pray for them, we don’t need that as an excuse to find out the dirt of their sin. G-d knows what it is. Just pray for them. G-d doesn’t need your specifics. He knows all the hairs on our heads and the origin of the wind and where the darkness goes when it’s light out…he doesn’t need me telling him the really terrible thing I just learned that you did. Neither does the prayer circle I’m going to share it with.  What about loving someone to the point where we just don’t want to see them hurt and sad? Take their sin out of it. Just love them. Let’s just love them because of the love overflowing from us. Let’s not assume how G-d is or isn’t working in their lives or that G-d needs us to help Him work. Like St. Augustine said, “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” Now that doesn’t sound very awful to me at all.

G-d’s love should bring us all together. It should shine on us so that it reflects off of us. Not our love at all, but just the glow of his. That’s what happened to Moses right? He asked to see G-d’s glory and G-d told him that all that Moses could handle is to see the dust that G-d kicks up in his wake as he passed by, and even that was enough that Moses started to glow as if he was sick with radiation. Shouldn’t that be us? Or at least what we strive for? We read in the Scriptures that a wife should submit to her husband. In my experience this is a verse that is just manipulated by Christian men to get sex from their wife at will, make sure they cook and clean, and to have them do what they want simply because he is the husband and the bible says so. But I heard a philosopher say something once that changed my life. And actually it’s a principle that Carson McCullers touches on in her book Ballad of the Sad Café. But the philosopher said that a man is to love a woman to the extent that any love he receives from her is just overflow from the love he gives to her. To love her to the extent that it is reflected back unto him through her. And to me that seems more in keeping with loving a wife the way Christ loved the church. But going further, shouldn’t that be our model for love in general, not just between spouses? There are so many examples in which grace is just simply amazing. We don’t need to add our flavor to it. Too many cooks in the kitchen. We turn the amazing into awful once we start injecting our own seasoning into it.

I really feel that we need to stop using the Bible as a tool to keep people at arm’s length. It shouldn’t ever be a weapon. We often get to a point of these drive-by shootings of Scripture. It makes us feel like we are doing good, sewing seeds. But the seeds just get carried away in the wind and land among weeds and rocks. Saying, “Jesus loves you” in passing is nowhere near as effective as holding a friend when they are sad or laughing with them when they are laughing and never even mentioning Jesus by name. Why don’t we need to? Because Jesus is in our hug and in our laughter. But something in us, some guilt, makes us feel like we didn’t do our “job” or fulfill the great commission if we don’t say a Bible verse. Or mention Jesus. But the rocks and stones cry that out. Our hugs do it. Our character. Our friendship. Our person. That’s Scripture in the moments when Scripture isn’t needed.

I remember after I graduated college I was in danger of not getting my diploma because I didn’t go to church enough. Three days a week was a mandatory chapel service. You could only miss it five times a semester. Otherwise you had to write papers or do community service. There a long story behind all of it but it’s not important, we don’t need the politics of how I got there, but because of it I ended up helping at a shelter on Long Island. I didn’t mind it too much because I thought I’d talk to people and help them, but all I did was vacuum and fold pamphlets and organize toys in the donation pile. For a week I did it. Crime and punishment. But it gave me a lot of time to observe people. And the person running the shelter was very stern and, to me, very unfriendly. And I observed once this man following her around. Clearly down on his luck, maybe not homeless but certainly not living well, and he was talking to her about issues in his life and she kept getting annoyed at his bad language. Then to end the conversation she simply said, “The Bible says the righteous man falls seven times.” Just like that. Drive-by Bbible verse as if it accomplished something. A man in need came to her and she quoted the Bible. Done and done. But all I witnessed that it accomplished was the man asking, sincerely, “I don’t understand sister, I have to make this same mistake six more times?” Have you ever had your heart break but swell with anger and hatred at the same time? To this day I think of it and I wonder why I never followed the man outside to talk to him. It doesn’t plague me but I wonder if I should have. So I can only imagine a church service hammering me for not talking to him would be awful. And I am sure when that guy left he wasn’t filled with the sweet sound of amazing grace.

Of course I don’t know how to answer it. In any article or movie review I’ve ever written for this site I just through out all this rambling about things that bug me and principles I find in movies and books and baseball—but I don’t think I’ve ever offered up a single solution. Because…well, simply because I don’t know. I know nothing. I don’t know what G-d does or why he does it. I know what the Bible says, but not what it means. I just know some things stick with me and I just want to talk about it. Write about it. Think about it. Wrestle with it. But I think we can get to a good place. If we look around and see each other as the same. We don’t see a hierarchy of sin and sinner. We don’t beat ourselves up about it. We don’t slam ourselves down deeper in the mud thinking it makes G-d’s love more special when all it really does is get us so stuck in the mud that we can’t get out. We make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven. We make grace awful.

Dan Smith of the band Listener sing/speaks this great song called Wooden Heart and some of his imagery speaks maybe of this place of peace and acceptance. He had a thought for a story/song of a coastline town that didn’t have any wood to build a church, so they used the wood from all the shipwrecked hulls that wash up and he expands on that idea to show that we are all shipwrecks. Together. Each one of us. So if I look at you and you look at me and we both see shipwrecks then together we can build something great. We can connect and be the same. It’s just great imagery to me.

Cause I know that our church is all made out of shipwrecks
From every hull these rocks have claimed
But we pick ourselves up, try and grow better with this change
So come on and let’s wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, we’re just some tattered rags stained forever

Maybe that’s it. If we see each other as the same shipwrecks and we use that common ground to pick ourselves up. Wash each other in tears of joy and grief. To laugh with those who are laughing and cry with those who mourn. We can be sewn together, each of us tattered and broken, but sewn together into something great. It takes something amazing to sew up tattered rags into something beautiful. Something that speaks for itself. Whether we shoot off our mouths or not. A bar that doesn’t need to be talked up or the rest of the world talked down. A joy that makes people stop and follow. And nature sing like men. That—well, that takes Amazing Grace.

Joshua Eric Murray
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