It was well after 10:00 P.M., and I was returning home after making a round of visits to church members. I was feeling hungry and not just hungry—I was starving! I was expecting to go home, prepare myself something to eat, and go to bed next to my wife who had to be at her job at 5:00 A.M. To my surprise, she was awake! Not only that, she asked if I was hungry, because if I was, she would prepare anything I wanted to eat. I thought about it for one second and said Yes. And to myself, I said, Married life is awesome!
The menu I requested was refried beans, fried plantains, and sour cream. If you’ve never had it, you have no idea what you are missing!
After what seemed like an eternity, she came out of the kitchen, face shining like the stars, hair flowing in the wind (we had a fan on), and gave me the plate of food. Needless to say, I felt like I was in heaven. So I prayed. Quickly. Then I took the first spoonful of beans.
There are two recipes for making beans. One is beans with a dash of salt. The other, a less popular recipe, is salt with a dash of beans. Guess which one my wife used that night? I love sugar, but salt has never been my thing, and it showed all over my face! Suddenly, the warm feelings were replaced with a sense of disappointment that was obvious to everyone, especially to my wonderful wife. I later apologized for my lack of grace. Grace had been offered as a late night unmerited favor, yet I chose to concentrate on the one mistake and missed a wonderful opportunity to experience it in its fullness.
Grace is hard to find. Why? Because we don’t live in a grace-filled world. Think about it.
- Sports: You play well, you get paid. Endorsements, applause, and recognition go to the winner. Who, other than the parents of the runner, remember who came in fourth place in the 1980 Olympics 100 meters?
- Job: You work well, you are rewarded with a bonus, promotions, accolades, the corner office, and a raise.
- School: Those who study hard get on the dean’s list, receive scholarships, and graduate summa cum laude. They usually display their parchment paper on a very visible wall that says to everyone, “I earned this.”
- Home: Kids clean their room, they get ice cream. Tasks finished are rewarded, be it with a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, or a $20 bill.
The reason it’s hard to experience grace is that our world is ruled by works. From the supermarket to the information superhighway, the principle is the same: You get what you work for, sometimes less.
So where can we find grace?
In the church!
I contend that the church is the hope of the world. It’s the place where people can see love for the sinner and hate for the sin. It’s the only place people can come just as they are and leave better. With all its imperfections, church, rightly done, can be the vehicle that God uses to help us learn about grace.
But the question is, when people get there, will they find grace?
I was 22 years old, a theology student, a third generation Christian, and a church member—and I did not know Jesus! As long as I behaved well and looked the part, everything was OK. Most of my religious conversations with adults revolved around how to change my behavior, not whether I knew Jesus as my personal Savior.
The wonderful thing about knowing Jesus is that with Him in the picture, it makes the Christian experience deeper and the walk with God a delight, not a chore. Church can be enjoyed, not endured. It’s “you want to,” not “you ought to” Christianity.
And it’s all because of grace.
Grace also empowers me to experience true community with people who don’t think, look, or believe just like I do. Belonging to such a church reminds me of Noah’s ark. The similarities to a local congregation are plentiful. Here are some of them.
The ark was not the most comfortable place to be. Other than the obvious fact of living with animals, the ark had many features that kept the comfort level low. It had only one window; it housed married couples and their in-laws for an extended period of time; and it didn’t have pizza delivery, hot showers, and spacious rooms. Close quarters can bring the worst out of people, and I am sure that even though Noah’s faith was strong, a lot of questions went through his mind as he looked outside and saw his former home covered with water.
Church has its great days, but it also has its share of experiences that may not be all you expect it to be. The pastor may not be the best preacher, a member may have a childlike attitude, or you may have a difficult conversation with a sensitive person. From overcrowded parking to an understaffed children’s class, church may not always be the most comfortable of places.
The ark was not the cleanest of places. Imagine cleaning up after several hundred animals everyday for more than a hundred days. The smell alone would be enough to knock you out! There was animal hair, secretions, and odors to last a lifetime, which is probably what it seemed like to Noah and his family. A long time ago, I learned a short poem that goes like this:
Living in heaven, with saints we don’t know, that would be glory.
Living on earth, with saints we do know, well, that’s another story.
Relationships can be messy. People aren’t always faithful or truthful. The ark was not the most popular of places. Only eight people responded to Noah’s call to come into the ark. A significant segment of today’s population is saying No to church. People in general have no problem with churches existing; they just don’t think it’s for them. Especially with the younger generation, the mantra is: “I’m cool with Jesus. Church? Not so much.”
The ark was the most secure place to be. With all its drawbacks, the ark was the only place people could be protected from the coming storm. Everyone on land perished. Everyone. Now, I’m not suggesting that the church is a means of salvation. We all know that Jesus is the One who saves. That same Jesus, however, has called the church His “body” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Trying to separate Jesus from the church is like trying to separate a person’s body from his head. Neither can function alone. The Bible makes a very strong case for belonging to a local congregation. Following are four of the many blessings that come from attending a grace-filled church:
- Joy (Psalm 122:1).
- Growth (Psalm 92:13).
- Security (Psalm 61:4).
- Love (Psalm 5:7).
Maybe a story can help. One frigid, windy autumn afternoon my wife and I were traveling by plane from South Bend, Michigan, to Baltimore, Maryland. This trip had one stop, in Cleveland. The first plane was a 16 passenger commuter plane that from the start didn’t look too promising. Anyone living close to the Midwest knows that the winds can be very strong at that time of the year. The problems started the moment we took off. The plane shook violently, and the ups and downs started to do a number on our stomachs. I started confessing my sins, because I figured this was it!
The pilot’s door was open, and I saw him take out what looked like a manual that I suspected said, For emergencies only! (This was before 9/11, when you could actually see who was piloting the plane.) Red lights flashed inside his cabin. My wife held my hand until my knuckles were as white as my face. This ordeal stopped for a little while once we got above the clouds, but it started again during our descent into Cleveland. Finally, we made it. We were scared, upset, and uncomfortable— but we made it.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson about church. When we were in the midst of that uncomfortable situation, up thousands of feet in the air, no one said, “This is too uncomfortable for me, I’m leaving!” The reason is that even though it was bad inside, it was far worse outside. People stayed in their seats, got closer to God, and expected the situation to get better.
One lst note about Noah’s ark. Probably hundreds of people helped to build it, yet only eight were saved. The fact that you are working for God, volunteering in your local church and in your community, does not automatically translate into a saving relationship with Jesus. You need to go further. It isn’t enough to believe; you must belong.
Where can you find grace today? In the church! The beans may not be all they could be at the next potluck, and the ride may get kind of bumpy, but remember that the same Person who brought Noah’s ark through the storm will bring you safely through your storms.
Not because of you. Because of grace.