Philip Yancey is one of those writers who reaches past the normal barriers faced by Christian authors to speak to the pain of a hurting world.
He writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches – people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church.
He delivered in early April the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, speaking from the substance of his newest book, “Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?”
Yancey told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace.
His lecture focused on the latter, surveying the present moment and lamenting how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world.
Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled. His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?”
This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general and toward organized Christianity in the U.S. in particular. This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.
The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, Yancey suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily.
But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.
Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of President Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem.
People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today.
Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own Scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel.
The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.
Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord – practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten, and offering a vision of a better life.
People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.
It was a stirring presentation and reminder to me of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion.
He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?”
Gandhi responded, “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”
I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them.
There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward.
We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Flat Pickin’ Progress, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @FurrGary.