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When everything else is gone, Christ remains

A little over a week ago I watched the Whitney Houston funeral. They called it a “homegoing”. I think I did okay really until R Kelly started to sing. He sang “I Look To You”. He pointed up. It completely undid me. I sat in front of the streaming feed and wept.

That song, and that moment, captured what I believe Christianity is really all about. When there is no more cause that ignites the imagination and marshals one's energy, when the siege of the spirit we know as life takes its toll and we are tired, when the melodies have faded, then there is Christ.

The implication, and really the consistent testimony of speakers, is that Whitney Houston looked to God. It may sound trite, but she evidently really did have a personal relationship with God. Her movie bodyguard, Kevin Costner, said the two of them laughed telling one another stories of growing up in the Baptist church. Her real life bodyguard said he had a name for her Bible; he called it “raggedy”, because it was worn from use, highlighted and dog-eared.

In a performance-based, rule-bound approach to Christianity, Whitney Houston did not measure up, but I suspect she could be a poster child for grace. Grace is undeserved favour. You don't earn grace; there is nothing you can do to deserve it. It is freely given, and the means for receiving it, like one hand taking hold of another, is faith.

About 230 years ago a man who understood this published a hymn he had written. It was his way of saying, “I look to you”. It was written from his heart, in accord with a personal relationship he had entered into with God. That hymn was “Amazing Grace”. The man was John Newton, who turned out to be one of William Wilberforce's pastoral influences, and that is significant, because William Wilberforce was responsible for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.

John Newton had been a captain on a slave ship. He was a human trafficker. What he did was loathsome. He was responsible for carrying people into slavery, and he was responsible for the horrendous suffering and deaths of those who could not tolerate the passage. How then could such a man ever become a pastor?! What kind of people would ever submit to his pastoral leadership? How could a man such as he had been ever provide spiritual guidance, and how could such a bad example ever be allowed to represent Christ in public?

Grace.

I sometimes wonder if the church today really understands grace. It is a word, one of the common vocabulary in the idiom of Christianity. You hear it spoken a lot. People use it as a talisman or a shibboleth. In church it seems like all you have to do is say the word grace and by magic something is supposed to happen. In church it seems like you can sort the believers and non-believers by determining who has received grace and who has not.

There is no magic in grace, and God sends His rain on both the just and the unjust alike. Grace is the expression of God's unconditional love toward us. It has everything to do with Him and nothing to do with us, except that we are the objects of His affection. Everyone falls short; no-one has it all together, even though we like to dress ourselves in religious pomp, carry crosses and Bibles and such, and soothe ourselves by rehearsing words like “grace”. Nothing you can do on Sunday will make you any more acceptable to God than what you do all the other days of the week.

What we consider righteousness is insufficient.

Rather, what we do on Sunday, or any other day when we worship, is to look to Him. In our relationship with God we look to Him. This is not mysterious. We know how to turn our gaze on another person so as to allow our eyes to meet. We know what contact with another person is like; it is exciting and can cause anxiety. It is both wonderful and awful at the same time.

This is what Rudolph Otto understood and wrote about in his book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto claimed that encounter with God produces two results: fear and attraction. I suppose you could say this is THE cosmic approach-avoidance dilemma. One is curious, attracted, and drawn toward God for His beauty and majesty, but on is also fearful and cautious about getting too close to such a Being for His overwhelming radiance and power.

Nevertheless, we still look to Him. As one of the disciples said when Jesus wondered if they would abandon Him like many of the people had done, “Where else can we go; You have the words of life”. So, in looking to God, we encounter Him. We meet Him, and we worship, and our worship is both an appreciation of his beauty and respect for His power.

But we meet Him. That is the main thing. We meet Him, and the meeting itself changes things. A person who knows God in this experiential way cannot keep from orienting to Him. God in Christ becomes the compass that gives a person the sense of where he or she is in the world. St Paul said that he had learned the secret of living with much or living with little he could do all things through Christ Who strengthened Him. He looked to God.

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Published February 28, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated February 28, 2012 at 7:36 am)

When everything else is gone, Christ remains

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