When grace is just a doctrine

Flowers blurphoto © 2009 Slawek Puklo | more info (via: Wylio)

Grace is my middle name.


I was born Rachel Grace Held—named after my great-grandmother, Grace Burleson, who taught school in rural Appalachia during the Depression and who, when I was young and she was old, used to pull me onto her lap to tell me stories about the ghost that lived in the hen house at the old farm. 

Grace is a good name, a gentle name, one I’d like to pass down to my own daughter someday.

In addition to that, grace is something that Christians really like to talk about. Indeed one could argue that grace is the thing that separates Christianity from all other faiths. This idea that God does not withhold his love from us, that he gives it freely in spite of our sin and rebellion, that it is ours to receive without condition or merit is indeed very good news. 

And yet Christians have a bad habit of letting grace get stuck in our heads. It becomes a doctrine we defend rather than a virtue we exhibit; an idea around which we rally rather than the animating force behind how we live. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth Gilbert gets the essence of grace just right in Eat, Pray, Love when she describes a conversation she had with her sister: 

A family in my sister’s neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, “Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.

I realized when I read this  just how rarely I thought about grace as way of life, and how tragic it is that grace is often reduced to a proposition, a mere religious idea.

Now we could get into a rather ungraceful argument about the true meaning of grace, but as I see it, grace is about giving without expecting anything in return. It’s about cutting ourselves and one another some slack. It’s about letting go of grudges and extending love when it is not deserved. It’s about acknowledging all the brokenness within us and around us…and loving in spite of it. 

The ultimate denial of grace, then, is not to misunderstand it theologically, but to withhold it. The minute we withhold grace because of some prejudice or fear on our part, it becomes nothing more than a doctrine. 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from ourselves. 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from one another.

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from the world.  

When I look ahead to my thirties, the quality I most want to nurture is grace—for myself, for the people around me, and for this planet I call home. I want to be less judgmental and more open. I want to be quicker to forgive myself when I make a mistake. I want to look for the divine under every stone, down every forgotten street, and in every puddle of rain. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. I want to make more casseroles and give more time.  I want to listen better to those who live differently than me. I want to forgive. I want to let go.  I want to relax a little and let my guard down and not take things quite so seriously.  

I want grace to move from my head into my heart and my hands, so that I live up to my name. 


Do you find yourself reducing grace to an idea rather than a lifestyle? Do you see this happening in the Church? In what ways have you given or received grace within the past day or two—I’d love to hear some stories!



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How to follow Jesus…without being Shane Claiborne


So I’ve recently discovered that my Christian faith tends to fall into a sad and predictable cycle, complete with five phases:

Phase 1: My commitment to Jesus is primarily an intellectual one.  He is an idea I believe in, not a person I follow.  

Phase 2: I read through the Gospels again and realize that Jesus doesn’t want me to simply like him; he wants me to follow him.

Phase 3: I buy the latest Shane Claiborne book, read it in two days, and resolve that following Jesus means selling all my things, sleeping with the homeless, and starting a monastic community. I begin looking into the cost of apartments in inner-city Nashville.

Phase 4:  I remember that I have a job, a mortgage, and a spouse (who hasn’t read Shane Claiborne).

Phase 5:  Heavy with guilt and overwhelmed by the insurmountable nature of my own convictions, I give up and revert right back to Phase 1. Following Jesus, it seems, just isn’t realistic.  

This cycle has been repeating itself for about three years now, but I think I may have figured out how to stop it…or at least make the ride a little less bumpy. 

It seems to me that the real problem occurs between Phases 4  and 5, where—upon facing the reality of my actual life and my actual responsibilities—I not only abandon Shane Claiborne’s way of following Jesus, I abandon following Jesus altogether. I short, I make the perfect the enemy of the good. I become paralyzed by my own idealism. 

No more. 

The next time I sense the cycle’s about to start,  I’m prepared with five mantras to remind me to follow Jesus as Rachel Evans, not as Shane Claiborne. 

Love the person in front of me. 
Whether it’s a stranger behind the checkout counter, a toddler who refuses a diaper change, an estranged friend, or a close family member, my calling in life is to love the person in front of me the way that Jesus would —patiently, attentively, unconditionally—moment by moment, day by day. Dostoevsky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in sight of all…But active love is labour and fortitude.” 

Care for my community. 
So much of the popular material related to justice and poverty focuses exclusively on urban issues. And yet rural poverty is real and just around the corner here in Dayton.  I might not choose to sleep with the homeless, but I can donate to the local food bank, help out the storm victims, get to know the families living in the mobile home park down the road, and volunteer at Rhea County’s free health clinic. (See my comment in response to Justin's below about the realities of rural poverty.)

Live with a little less. Small decisions can have a big impact, both globally and in my attitude toward materialism. I don’t have to go all or nothing—either selling everything I own and giving the money to the poor or buying the latest big screen TV as soon as some extra cash comes my way. But I can buy fair trade coffee, stick with local produce, take a pass on the newest gadget so I can send some money to India, and help out friends by babysitting for free.  And I can simplify, a little bit at a time, so that I’m more prepared—emotionally and physically— to make a more radical life change should an unexpected opportunity come along.

Push just past my comfort zone.
I have a bad habit of jumping to extremes, so I tend to be either all in or all out. And yet most of the time, loving the person in front of me doesn’t mean taking up my cross; it just means taking 15 more minutes to talk. I can’t allow my desire to be a “radical” Christ-follower prevent me from being a faithful Christ-follower. And faithfulness tends to happen in small, unglamorous acts of obedience—a grudge let go, a relationship pursued, a meal provided, an offer to help. If I am faithful in these little things, I may be entrusted with bigger things down the road, so I must remain open to new possibilities.

Follow Jesus TODAY
—not in some future state of perfection, but in messy, boring, unglamorous today.  This is the only moment I am promised, and it’s the best moment to seek after God.  Something tells me He can be found here.


Have you experienced a similar pattern in your life? How do you follow Jesus as YOU and not someone else?



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Jesus, God in Sandals

It’s Tuesday! Today’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 8, entitled “Jesus, God in Sandals.” 

The most startling thing I noticed as I grew more acquainted with the Gospels was that Jesus had a very different view of faith than the one to which I was accustomed. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in my late teens or early twenties, it was as if Jesus packed his bags and moved from my heart into my head. He became an idea, a sort of theological mechanism by which salvation was attained. I described him in terms ofatonementlogosthe object of my faith, and absolute truth.  He was something I agreed to, not someone I followed…

But Jesus rarely framed discipleship in terms of intellectual assent to a set of propositional statements. He didn’t walk new converts down the Romans Road or ask Peter to draft a doctrinal statement before giving him the keys to the kingdom. His method of evangelism varied from person to person and generally involved a dramatic change of lifestyle rather than a simple change of mind. To Jesus, “by faith alone” did not mean “by belief alone.” To Jesus, faith was invariably linked to obedience…

...Needless to say, that was a strange summer. It wasn’t the summer that brought an end to my doubt, but it was the summer I encountered a different Jesus, a Jesus who requires more from me than intellectual assent and emotional allegiance; a Jesus who associated with sinners and infuriated the religious; a Jesus who broke the rules and refused to cast the first stone; a Jesus who gravitated toward sick people and crazy people, homeless people and hopeless people; a Jesus who preferred story to exposition and metaphor to syllogism; a Jesus who answered questions with more questions, and demands for proof with demands for faith…a Jesus who healed each person differently and saved each person differently; a Jesus who had no list of beliefs to check off, no doctrinal statements to sign, no surefire way to tell who was “in” and who was “out”; a Jesus who loved after being betrayed, healed after being hurt, and forgave while being nailed to a tree; a Jesus who asked his disciples to do the same…

It occurred to me that if my faith managed to survive all of these doubts then this radical rabbi, this God in sandals, would require more from me than ever before. This radical Jesus wanted to live not only in my heart and in my head but also in my hands, as I fed the hungry, reached out to my enemies, healed the sick, and comforted the lonely.  Being a Christian, it seemed, isn’t about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes. 

How has your relationship with Jesus changed over the years?



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Jesus, The Impossible Mentor

Jesus Christ - Christus Statuephoto © 2006 midiman | more info (via: Wylio)

Today’s guest post comes from Ray Hollenbach, a longtime participant in our online community and great supporter and friend. Ray is on staff at a Vineyard church in Kentucky, where he lives with his wife, Kim, and the last of their three children. After twenty years in the business world and a dozen more as a pastor, he’s convinced that both the church and the marketplace need more Jesus and less religion. He blogs at Students of Jesus


I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $200 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $200. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was--and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:

“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.”

Big mistake.

“Well I’m not Jesus!” he nearly shouted back at me.

End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.

It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.

I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor.

It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?

Some passages in the Scripture inspire fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8: 29) Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?

Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us--to become “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Simply put, God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.

In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it was possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour.

These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us? The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.

Let me encourage you to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:

  • Is it possible to learn from him? 
  • If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success? 
  • What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there was no possibility to follow in his footsteps?

The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.


Do you ever feel that Jesus is the impossible mentor?



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Rachel, the Very Worst Pacifist

Peace in B&Wphoto © 2008 Deana | more info (via: Wylio)

The title of today’s post is inspired by my friend Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary, who I’m pretty sure is not actually the very worst missionary since that title should belong to the friar who threw a Bible at King Atahaullpa back in 1532 and then gave the conquistadors permission to slaughter the Incan people because their king didn’t know how to read it. 

I’m against that sort of thing because I’m a pacifist…or at least I’m trying to be.

I realized just how miserably I was failing at my newfound commitment to nonviolence the other day when I found myself asking the television set, “Can’t we just take this Gadhafi clown out?” (And I didn’t mean take him out to dinner to share with him the good news Jesus.)

This most recent slip is one in a long line of utter failures that typically begin after I suggest to friends that perhaps Jesus wasn’t simply referring to annoying coworkers when he said “love your enemies,” that maybe he had a radical way of life in mind, and am then pelted with questions to which I don’t have good answers. 

What about the Holocaust? Should we have stood by and let that happen? 

If someone attacks you in the parking lot at Wal Mart, are you seriously not going to fight back? 

Don’t you support our troops? 

I never know what to say because honest answers to these questions would reveal what a terrible pacifist I am. 

That’s because my commitment to nonviolence, ironically enough, is a perfectly safe one. It’s something I can mention at parties in order to sound interesting, something I can intellectually espouse in order to feel morally superior, something I can claim with confidence because it will likely never be tested.  

I have no direct influence over the intricate workings of foreign policy or world affairs, so it’s easy for me to support peace. I don’t live in a violent part of town, so safety is not a real concern. I’ve never been so profoundly wronged by someone that violent retribution seems like a good idea. I can’t shoot a gun to save my life, and I’ll probably never have to. 

And secretly, I’m glad. 

Because non-violence is perhaps the hardest and most important part of Christ’s teachings, and the truth is, I’m just not sure I can follow Him all the way to the cross. 

So what do I do? 

In Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne writes: 

When we talk about peacemaking and the ‘third way of Jesus,’ people inevitably ask bizarre situational questions like, ‘If someone broke into your house and was raping your grandmother, what would you do?’ We can’t exhaustively troubleshoot every situation with a nonviolent ‘strategy,’ but what we can do is internalize the character and spirit of Jesus. We can meditate daily on the fruit of the Spirit and pray that they take root in us. Then we can trust when we encounter a bad situation, we will act like Jesus…

‘Leaving things in God’s hands’ should rather be used to mean ‘do what Jesus did.’ Follow Jesus’ example without regard for whether you are effectively ‘changing the world.’ Jesus demonstrated what it means to leave things in God’s hands. So if we want to know what it means for us to trust in Jesus, we should ask what it meant for Jesus to trust in God.

So I guess there are a few things I can do while I’m waiting to become a better pacifist. 

  • I can meditate on the teachings of Jesus.
  • I can refuse to be violent with my words. 
  • I can study the imaginative work of peaceful activists like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. 
  • I can strive to internalize and exhibit the fruit of the spirit. 
  • I can pray for our nation’s enemies. 
  • I can educate myself on foreign policy. 
  • I can practice being a peacemaker in small conflicts in order to prepare for larger ones. 
  • I can control my temper. 
  • I can love the people in my life that it is hardest for me to love, so that maybe one day I will be prepared to love actual enemies. 
  • (And I can be grateful that, for now, I don’t really have any. )

I can be faithful in the small things in case one day I am trusted with something bigger. 

I may be the very worst pacifist, but perhaps with time I’ll become a better one…or at least one who doesn’t shout at the TV. 


What are your thoughts on this whole Libya thing? Has it tested some of your ideals? What are your thoughts on non-violence?



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