A Few Good Books – 2

(Second in a series)

In a previous installment, I began listing some of my favorite Christian books, starting with Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. To review, here are the ground rules:

  • One book per author.
  • Non-fiction.
  • Written in the last hundred years.
  • Only five books on the list.

Let me again say that I realize that, by its very nature, a list like this is highly subjective. My list almost certainly will not be your list – AND THAT’S OKAY! My point is not to argue about whether I should have chosen C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, instead of Mere Christianity, or if my fourth or fifth choices should be ranked in a different order.

The point here is to encourage believers to read more, and to choose books to read that will challenge, inspire, sharpen their thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

I recall a conversation I once heard about between a college student and one of his professors. The professor asked the student what he was reading, and the student replied by naming a famous novel (I’ve forgotten which one). The professor smiled tolerantly and said, “Yes, yes, that’s fine for the gravy, but what about the meat?” In other words, the professor was saying, that while there was nothing wrong with reading that particular novel, it was not going to challenge the student in the way that the professor was hoping.

So, my next recommendation is –

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey

Copyright © 1997, by Philip Yancey – Zondervan Publishing House

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s father died from complications of polio, after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him.

Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that.

He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine, and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – the love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Soren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

A Morning in Jerusalem

A disclaimer to begin: I realize this post is longer than I usually write – a LOT longer. A word of explanation is in order.

A few years ago I was preaching through the Gospel of John, always on the lookout for fresh ways of retelling familiar stories. One book I had read on sermon writing suggested telling a story as if you were describing a movie. How would the shots be set up? What would the dialog be like? How would the music sound?

So I decided to give that approach a try, and here is the result. Our class at Beltway will be dealing with this story this coming Sunday (Aug. 4), so I thought I’d pull this out and share it. Like I said, I know it’s longer than my other posts, but I hope you will find it encouraging and thought-provoking.

A Morning in Jerusalem
(c) Dusty Garison, 2004, 2013
John 7:53-8:11

We fade in on a gray screen. We can see movement and shades within the gray, but we really can’t tell what we’re seeing. Then, as the screen gradually continues to lighten, we can tell that it is dawn, and that we have been looking at gray clouds moving against the lighter gray sky, just before sunup. We hear the main title music playing, a haunting and beautiful melody, led by strings and flutes. The sky grows steadily brighter and brighter, changing in colors from gray to pink to rose to orange, until finally the sun breaks over the horizon and it is day.

Cut to a hillside view, overlooking a city in the Middle East. As the camera pans across the view, we can see hundreds of small, white homes and other buildings, crowded so close together it seems they are almost built on top of each other. Dominating the scene is a magnificent structure we recognize as the temple. It is truly an amazing building, with stones as large as school buses. Its courtyards and connecting spaces cover an entire section of the city. At the bottom of the screen, superimposed over the picture, are the words that tell us where and when our movie is taking place: “Jerusalem, AD 30,” and below that the explanation, “The Last Year of Jesus’ Ministry.”

The words fade out, the camera zooms in, and we are heading up and down the narrow, twisting streets and alleys of the city. It is still very early in the morning, and not many people are out yet. We see a woman stirring a small cooking fire next to her one-room house; we pass another woman carrying a jar of water. Finally, the camera takes us into another house. It is almost too dark to see, but there on the wall, we can just barely make out the faint shadows of a man and woman, locked in love’s embrace.

Suddenly, there is a noise and a commotion. The music changes from the sweet, soft melody of the flutes to a blaring cacophony of brass instruments and drums. A dozen or more men come bursting into the room as the lovers try to escape. There are temple guards and other officials among the men, and they are led some from the group known as the “Separated Ones;” Pharisees, they call themselves. They grab the woman and begin to drag her from the room, allowing her just enough time to grab a robe for her to partially cover herself. In the confusion, the man escapes – or did they let him go?

The music continues to build, louder and louder, as the group heads back up the street, pushing and shoving the half-dressed woman in a makeshift parade. They are yelling obscenities and curses at her, making sure that they attract a crowd to follow them. The discordant, glaring music holds a long note, then abruptly shuts off as we…

Cut to a much more peaceful scene, back at the Temple. Instead of the shouts and curses of the previous scene and the glaring trumpets, now we hear only soft footsteps. We see a group of a dozen or so men walking through the outer courtyard area. The footsteps we’re hearing come from them. They are a diverse lot, ranging in age from about 20 to perhaps 50. The camera tracks with them as they enter the courtyard. At the head of this motley group is a rabbi. We can tell he is the teacher, because draped around his neck is a long prayer shawl of the type some rabbis wear. It is so long, it nearly touches the ground. It is white with blue stripes, and tassels at each end. The young rabbi is in his early thirties.

We cut to a close-up of this man. We can see his hands are callused; he may be a teacher now, but he is no stranger to hard work. The camera cuts to his feet. He is wearing sandals, and his feet show the dirt of the road he is walking. Cut to his eyes. Even in his young face, we see the beginnings of laugh lines around his eyes, and in those eyes burns an intensity that startles us – a mixture of joy and seriousness, pain and humor.

He is talking with the men in his group as they walk along together, and although we can’t make out what they’re saying, it’s obvious as we watch that they have been together long enough to be comfortable with each other. He is their teacher and they are his students, but they are also friends, and it shows in their manner. They are heading for a particular corner of the courtyard; they’ve been there before.

The scene shifts from them to others in the courtyard. In a series of rapid cuts, we can feel the excitement building as people point and comment as the group walks by. “There he is,” we hear one man say. “What story do you think he’ll tell today?” another man asks. “Who is that?” asks a third. His companion answers, almost in a whisper, “That’s that teacher everyone is talking about – Jesus of Nazareth.” Meanwhile, the rabbi leads his little group to the spot he has in mind, and as is the custom for teachers of that day, he sits down. His disciples gather around him, and the lesson begins.

We cut back to the woman; the men around her are still shoving and pushing her, cursing her to hurry up. She is desperately trying to hold her robe together and preserve some shred of dignity and modesty, but she isn’t having much luck. The camera pans from the woman to a group of three of the leaders of this group, walking behind. We listen in on their conversation.

“Look, it’s just like I was saying the other day,” one them declares. “There’s no way he can get out of this.”

“Yes,” says a second, “but nobody has been executed for adultery in as long as anyone can remember. Good thing too, for some of these guys. Besides, he’s going to know what this woman is, and that we set this whole thing up. How else could we be witnesses, if we hadn’t hired her in the first place and told her what house to go to?”

“That doesn’t matter,” answers the first. “We’ve got her, dead to rights, and the law is still the law. It says she must die.”

“But the Romans would never let us execute someone for something like this; you know it, I know it, and he knows it,” his friend protests.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” the first man says. “If he says we should just let her go and forget about it, we can accuse him of being a lawbreaker and overlooking a capital crime. The people will turn against him. But if he says to carry out the death penalty, then we can accuse him to the Romans of usurping their authority.”

“Yes,” chimes in a third man, “but more than that, he’ll lose the support of that rabble that follows him. He can’t very well talk about forgiveness and mercy on the one hand, and executing her on the other. They call him, ‘The friend of sinners’ – some friend! No matter what he says, we can discredit him publicly.” The camera stays on this man’s face, and we see the triumph in his eyes. It is a thoroughly unpleasant look. The camera stops moving as we watch the group continuing marching through the street; just ahead of them is the Temple gate.

The scene cuts back to Jesus and his listeners. Many from the crowd have wandered over to hear him speak. It is early autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, and there are a lot of folks here who have heard about this rabbi from the Galilee. He is retelling a story that some have heard before. The camera tracks across the scene, to give us a chance to see both Jesus and his followers, listening with rapt attention.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep,” he tells them, “and one of them turns up missing. Won’t you leave the ninety-nine sheep someplace safe, and go look for the missing one? Of course you would.” At this, the camera focuses on some in the audience who are nodding their heads in agreement. Jesus continues, “And when you find it, wouldn’t you joyfully pick it up and put it on your shoulders, and carry it back home? Of course you would. You might even throw a party when you get there, because you were so excited that you had found your lost sheep. I’m telling you the truth: there is more excitement in heaven over one lost person who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who don’t need to repent.”

He pauses for a moment, to let them think about what he’s just said. He is about to continue, when heads in the crowd begin to turn. A mob is heading for him. “What’s going on?” some in the crowd ask. They grasp in shocked surprise at the sight of the indecently-dressed woman, so obviously a prostitute. More and more people hurry over to the corner of the courtyard where Jesus is sitting. After all, excitement is where you find it, and suddenly, this day just became much more interesting.

The crowd in front of Jesus moves aside, and up walk the leaders of the mob, with the guards dragging the woman along. For a long moment, no one says a word. During this silence, we have a series of quick camera changes, as we see first the Pharisees and teachers, staring angrily at him – cut to some of Jesus’ disciples, puzzled by this interruption – cut to the woman, bruised and scraped at the rough treatment she’s been receiving, and bleeding from her knees and elbows, embarrassed and humiliated at what is happening – cut to Jesus, still sitting on the ground, looking up at the ringleaders with a sort of a sad, resigned look in his eyes. We watch as he slowly stands up.

The camera cuts back to the scribes, as with a jerk of their heads, they motion to the temple guards, who give the woman a final shove. She tries to hide, but there is no escape. They are enjoying her shame, and they make her stand there. The camera moves to one of the Pharisees, dressed in his robes, proudly wearing all the badges of his office and symbols of his heritage. He is proud and sure of himself, and his pride can be seen in the way he is dressed, and heard in the way he speaks.

“Teacher,” he says, in a voice loud enough to be heard by all the crowd, “his woman was caught in the act of adultery – in the very act!” He pauses to make sure everyone has understood him. The crowd is murmuring among themselves for a moment. He looks around, nodding approval at the crowd’s gossip, before he raises his hands for quiet and continues. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Please give us the benefit of your special wisdom,” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “What should we do with her? What do you say?”

The camera holds on him, as he looks around at the audience. He is sneering with obvious pleasure. This is his moment of triumph: all the planning, all the preparations, all of it for this very moment. At last, he looks back at Jesus.

To this man’s very great surprise, Jesus doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t try to say anything, doesn’t try to get away, doesn’t try to explain his way out of an obviously put-up situation. Instead, the teacher just bends down, sort of sitting on his haunches, and begins to write in the dirt.

The noisy crowd has grown completely silent. Jesus’ disciples are also silent. In fact, we don’t hear anything except the wind blowing. What is he writing in the dust? We can’t tell. Is he just doodling, to give himself time to think? Or is he writing something – a verse of scripture perhaps? Perhaps a verse like, “Do not share in the iniquity of evildoers”? Or maybe, “Do not conspire with those who tell lies”? Whatever he’s writing, it takes a long moment, and the silence grows.

While this is going on, the camera moves in a circle around Jesus, always focused on him. His face is calm as he continues to write. We see his hand, drawing in the dirt. We cut back to his eyes. They turn one way to look at the woman, and we look at her, too. She sees him look at her, but she can’t bear to look back, and she stares at the ground. Then we see his eyes look over at the scribes, and we look at them. Their eyes are hard, bright and shining with anger. He looks at his disciples, and we see their concern. They know the master is in trouble here.

Not a word is spoken during these cuts. Finally, the Pharisees begin to press him. “Come on, teacher,” they say. “What should we do with her? Do we stone her or not?” Again we have a series of camera cuts, from Jesus to the scribes to the woman, to Jesus, to the crowd.

Finally, in a wide shot where we can see the whole scene, Jesus stands up and looks at them. We cut to a close-up of his face. “Fine,” he says, in a quiet and calm voice. “Whichever of you is without sin may be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he stoops back down and resumes his writing.

We cut to the scribes, and we can see they had not expected this. Suddenly, they realize they have been trapped by their own legalism. The camera pans across the assembled crowd. The older members of the group realize the meaning of his words, and begin to leave, followed by the younger members. We listen to one conversation. “What’s the matter?” asks a young scribal apprentice. “Why are we leaving?”

His master looks at him. “The law says that when executions are required, the witnesses against the accused must be the first to cast the stones.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asks the young man. “Why is that a problem?”

“Because,” says the older man, “the law also says that those witnesses must not be guilty of any conspiracy in the matter.”

The camera now holds steady in a wide shot, as one by one, the entire crowd moves out of the frame and walks away, leaving only the woman still standing before Jesus. The camera zooms in on her, and we look at her, and for the first time, really see her as a person. Jesus walks into the frame, and looks at her with genuine kindness, so unlike the look she normally sees in men’s eyes. After a moment, he asks her, “Woman, where did everyone go? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she answers. The camera holds on her for a moment.

Finally, the camera cuts back to Jesus. “Then neither do I condemn you,” he says to her. “You may go, and from now on, leave your life of sin.”

We see her expression change, and she begins to smile – a real smile, not the one she uses on customers. Something has changed in her; we see hope beginning to dawn in her eyes. The camera cuts back to Jesus, the music comes up with a swell, and he smiles back at her as we fade in the words, “The End,” and then slowly fade to black.

Except it ISN’T the end. You see, I believe each one of us is somewhere in this story.

Perhaps you are like the woman in this story before she met Jesus. You may not be an adulterer, but maybe you can identify with her. Everyone she’d ever known had betrayed and used her. She had thrown away her hope, given up on life, and now she just wanted to get through each day with as little pain as possible. Sound familiar?

Perhaps, like her, you’re desperately hoping for forgiveness, but knowing you don’t deserve it. But she found grace and forgiveness from this teacher, and you can as well.

Or maybe you’re like the Pharisees here. They were so sure of their absolute rightness, and they had all the answers. They despised people who didn’t measure up to their standards of right and wrong. After all, didn’t their standards come from the law? And hadn’t Moses given them the law so they could demonstrate how righteous they were, and how sinful everyone else was?

Maybe you can identify with the Pharisees. You see, I can. I grew up in church. I knew right from wrong. I didn’t disobey my parents or do drugs or get into trouble. And I knew the rules. I knew that keeping the rules was the way to get God to love me, and for me to prove how good I was. And everyone knows, we shouldn’t associate with anybody who doesn’t measure up to how the rules should be kept. If people want to follow God, let them clean up their act and prove they’re sincere; then we can talk.

What about Jesus’ disciples? What were they thinking during all this? I’m sure they were confused, torn between knowing that you can’t just overlook sin, but also knowing that Jesus came to demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness. But they must have wondered: how far does that forgiveness extend?

I know they wondered that, because I’ve wondered that. I was discussing this with an older Christian recently, a man whom I really respect and admire in the faith. He said he had been struggling with this, and he asked out loud the question many of us have wanted to ask: are there limits to grace?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this: as far as the Bible tells us, the only times Jesus ever condemned anyone, it was for self-righteousness and spiritual self-importance. On the other hand, every time Jesus dealt with people who came to him in need, sinners looking for a fresh start, every time he had to choose between showing more grace versus less grace, he always showed more. May the same be true of us.

The end. Fade to black.