Grace and Peace

1841140

1841141
photos by Jamie Sutter

When I left a staff position at a church I loved like family, it was like a weird divorce/exile/emancipation event had taken place. A void was blasted into my identity as a Christian like some holy stick of theological dynamite had gone off; my community, my friends, my father figure, my purpose, even my home had been enmeshed in that place. As I began the horrible experience of church-shopping I was as bitter and cynical about finding a match as I had been during my ill-fated attempts at online dating. Many people talked to me about this “new, hip church” that had just started up where I would supposedly fit-right-in. My rhetoric was that I just wanted to find a place with like-minded people, a church that felt like my beloved Cornerstone. The reality, however, was that I never expected to find a place where my passions, theology, and personality would allow me to belong.

After a year at a church in a neighboring town that was full of warm, beautiful, kind people but whose sole mission was their ministry to families (ie – parents with small kids), which they did very well by the way, I was restless. I didn’t have a marriage to work on or kids to parent. I had known from week one that this wouldn’t be where I’d put down roots, but I had no idea where else to go. Finally, and I don’t remember now why, I decided to check out the “cool, hip church.”

All Apple tech, NPR, indie rock, specialty beer references aside, I fell in love with the place. It started with the teaching. I kept hearing sermons that echoed ideas I first heard when I went back to college, ideas that had shaken the foundations of my faith in the best possible ways. Ideas I had felt cheated for not having ever heard all my years in the church. Ideas that I strongly believed should be the heart of the Church’s teachings. I also loved this community’s focused attention to the needy fringes of our city, the compassion so many had for the hurting and disenfranchised. Their commitment to the arts was also refreshing: bands wrote music, book clubs were happening, visual aspects of sermons and seasons were made top priority. Plenty of people had tattoos and funky hair, some wore business casual to church, and I was not nearly liberal enough to rock the boat. In essence, I found the like-minded people I’d searched for hidden behind the smokescreen of the hipster reputation I had cynically dismissed.

Early on a sermon was preached on the introductions of many of the letters to churches that make up the New Testament in the Bible. This phrase “Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” shows up a whole bunch. See, the biggest challenges for those very first groups of people following Jesus were the intense racism, elitism, and economic prejudices that governed much of that world. The leaders of those churches worked diligently to bring all these different groups together, teaching them what this subversive upside-down kingdom of God looks like now that Jesus has come to make all things new. Divisions of gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status were slowly being mended by this shocking good news.

When leaders would write these little faith communities they would begin with two greetings, one to each group. In a Roman empire infused with fear of leaders’ whims and brutality, a letter that began by extending the “grace” (charis in Greek) of the official sending the letter would be the written equivalent of an “at-ease” moment in that person’s presence. On the other side of the room were the Jewish folks, for whom the idea of shalom (translated “peace”) expressed wholeness, rightness, that deep peace that reaches way beyond mere absence of conflict. The offer of shalom opened most Hebrew correspondence as a way of honoring the recipients with the greatest wish possible for them. In the New Testament letters, both of these greetings were used under one unifying identifier: you are all followers of one Lord, one Savior, the man Jesus Christ. In this little statement, what looks like an offhanded and somewhat flowery opener, is an all-encompassing expression of unity to antagonistically dissimilar peoples.

I’d never before considered the power this would have on those receiving these letters. Their distinctions were acknowledged, and both groups were given the respect and honor available to them in their own customs. Yet they were reminded of a greater truth, the reality that brought them together under the same roof to begin with. In Jesus, their differences mattered but not nearly as much as what they had in common.

We are still grappling with this idea in the here and now. On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” we are as segregated as ever. The Church is still fighting over whether women and men can be treated as equal human beings in the home and in ministry. Hate is the reflexive response by many Christians toward those who believe LGBT brothers and sisters should be embraced into the faith community. Ignorance still drives many American Christian attitudes regarding those of other faiths, particularly our Muslim neighbors and friends. After nearly two thousand years we are still stumbling over how to offer one another the grace of Christ and the peace of God.

I am as bad at this as anyone. I’m impatient, irritable, cranky. I can be prejudiced, judgmental, even cruel. I judge a thousand books by a thousand covers every day. I reduce you to your rules, your family status, your education, your ideals. I struggled with depression for years, and on the other side of the worst of that battle I rediscovered my temper. I can be mean-spirited and so small in my thinking.

I’ve come to realize that the greatest things I can offer another human being are the grace to cover weakness (real or perceived) and the peace of whole and total rightness. Forgiveness for wrongs. Acceptance of all your quirks and oddities. Genuine interest when we speak. Acknowledgement of the beauty, the image of God, that shines from the core of you. Deep love, from the heart. Looking you in the eye, hearing your needs and joys, honoring your brokenness and your redemption. Embracing you in all their unlovableness and in all your endearments.

Continuing in my effort to become a walking Rosetta Stone, the tattoo idea was to get “grace” and “peace” somewhere I would see every day. I wanted each word in English and the original language of the biblical text (Greek and Hebrew). I also wanted the Arabic salam (“peace”) because the fighting between Christians, Jews, and Muslims seems the best representation of today’s greatest religious divide. The universal symbol for peace is the olive branch, and the Celtic symbol for grace is the swan.

My wrist tattoos are reminders of that desire I have to offer grace and peace to the people I encounter each day. I committed a grave tattoo sin in having them face me rather than out, but I was able to convince the artist that it was best this way. They are reminders to me, not instructions to the rest of the world. Of all the people I know, I am the one in greatest need of growth in my capacity to love. When I extend my hand to shake yours, to hug you, to flip you the bird or bite my thumb at you, I see etched into my skin the beautiful truth of what transcendent harmony Jesus has made available to us all. May I pour myself out each day in efforts to show you grace and peace.

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