Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Grace Finds Goodness in Everything

There's a song by U2 that's been going on in my head for about the last week. It's not a very pretty song. The lyrics are not especially profound. Bono's voice is a bit strained, and even off at times.

The more I listen to it, the more I think these flaws may not be accidental. It just may be that the imperfections emphasize one of the themes of the song; "grace finds beauty in ugly things."

The title of the track is Grace, from their album All That You Can't Leave Behind. Here's the lyrics:

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it's a name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world

And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she's got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She's got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma, karma
She travels outside of karma

When she goes to work
You can hear the strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt, what once was friction
What left a mark no longer stains
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty in everything
Grace finds goodness in everything
As I said, not terribly profound. But, there's a couple of lines worth noting. For instance, this bit about "travels outside karma." Here's Bono's expansion on that idea in a Christianity Today interview from last year:

Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that's normal. It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Assayas: I haven't heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Assayas: Well, that doesn't make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I'd be interested to hear that.

Bono: That's between me and God. But I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s---. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled. It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven...
"Grace defies reason and logic." Dr. Bob unpacks that a little more:

...Grace is a disgrace to the logical mind–it’s just so, well, unfair, so un-American. After all, we get what we deserve and earn what we get–God helps those who help themselves, and all that. But grace intervenes when we arrive at the point where we cannot help ourselves–or worse, when our best self-help program has impossibly screwed up our lives. Grace gives you what you haven’t earned, and doesn’t give you what you justly deserve. Grace is scandalous, insulting, humiliating, an affront to our pride–indeed, it is the very enemy of our pride.

Everything we do to fix ourselves, to control our lives and those around us for our own gain and benefit, is at once both natural and self-destructive. It is natural because our inborn drives are self-protective–call it natural selection, call it survival of the fittest, call it enlightened self-preservation, call it selfishness and self-centeredness. It’s me first, and the hell with you. Of course, we wrap this up in social niceties because we live in a world with other people–people who can do us harm if we step on their toes too hard. But even this is fundamentally self-preserving. We are born to take care of ourselves, first and foremost.

But it is self-destructive, in ways that are not always obvious. We are social beings, designed for relationships: we reserve solitary confinement for our most reprobate criminals; loneliness is the deepest of emotional pains. We are not crafted to be self-dependent, but interdependent. But we are possessed of the notion–inherently anti-social–that self trumps other. And our mental skills are such that we can rationalize, deny, minimalize, excuse the harm done to others in the name of self. Self-serving brings temporary relief but long-term misery: it is a proven path to an unhappy, unsatisfying life.

And that is why grace is revolutionary.

Grace says someone else can do it better than you–if only you ask. Its message is an affront: it says we do not have all the answers–and the answers we do have are wrong–often disastrously so. Grace does not excuse our wrongs–it covers our wrongs. It doesn’t nullify Karma–it simply puts the bill on someone else’s tab. When we receive grace, someone else is bearing the price, the consequences for the hurt and the harm we have done. When we give grace, we choose to pick up the tab for another’s shortcomings, wrongdoing, destructiveness, evil. And that’s where we draw the line: we are happy to receive grace, but it is too much to ask of us to give it in return.

And that is the roadblock–ironically–which we need grace to overcome.

What is needed is a core inner transformation: we must become someone different. We are hard-wired to take–we need to be transformed to give. Trying to be other-oriented–following the rules, being a good person–without this transformation is counter-productive: it breeds resentment, self-righteousness, pride, self-sufficiency. But this inner transformation cannot be brought about by ourselves–it must come through others, and above all, from Another. But once this happens–and our will must be broken before it can–the miracle of motive change begins to take place.

When I act, I do so for one of two reasons: I do so because I have to, or I do so because I want to. While these motives may overlap, it is–not surprisingly–much easier to do the things I want to do than those I have to do. Karma is about doing that which I have to do–to placate a demanding God, to save my own skin. The miracle of grace is the willingness–the desire–to do that which is contrary to my nature, yet beneficial to my spirit...
Grace, God's unmerited favor...that's what Christianity is all about, as far as I'm concerned. And my understanding is that each of us is called to be a conduit of that same free gift of grace.

One last comment on another line..."Grace finds goodness in everything"... This is related to what I have said before about my discomfort with dualism that is often passed off as "Christianity" in some places today. So often we hear the story of creation beginning with the fall. We skip over the bit where God looked upon creation and declared "it is very good." Being good, being holy, being exactly what God intended us to be, is our natural state. When we fall from that state, when we sin, we cannot somehow surgically remove the sin, without damaging the rest of our being. I refer to sin as "twisted good." At the root of every sin is the original goodness. Metanoia, repentance, is about untwisting the sin by reorienting ourselves back to God. And God, whose property is to always have mercy, restores the goodness in everything. Thanks be to God!

Eternal God, in you we live and move and have our being. Fill us with your grace, that we may know in our lives, and proclaim with our every word and deed, the healing power of your love. Open our hearts to receive, and our eyes to see, your gift of grace, which finds goodness in everything.


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