Writings of Philip David Yancey
What’s So Amazing About Grace?
by Philip Yancey
Excerpt from Chapter 4
We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but in Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace there is no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love. Each has at its core an ending too good to be true – or so good that it must be true.
How different are these stories from my own childhood notions about God: A God who forgives, yes, but reluctantly, after making the penitent squirm. I imagined God as a stern taskmaster, a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune. There is no solemn lecture, "I hope you’ve learned your lesson!" Instead, Jesus tells of the father’s exhilaration – "this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" – and then adds, "they began to make merry."
What blocks forgiveness is not God’s reticence – "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him" – but ours. God’s arms are always extended, we are the ones who turn away.
I have meditated enough on Jesus’ stories of grace to let their meaning filter through me. Still, each time I confront their astonishing message I realize how thickly the veil of ungrace obscures my view of God. A housewife jumping up and down in glee over the discovery of a lost coin is not what naturally comes to mind when I think of God. Yet that is the image Jesus insisted upon.
The story of the Prodigal Son, after all, appears in a string of three stories by Jesus – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son – all of which seem to make the same point. Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells of the thrill of rediscovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation. Jesus says in effect, "Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those two-legged humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost." To God himself, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.
Strangely, rediscovery may strike a deeper chord than discovery. To lose, and then find, a Mont Blanc pen makes the owner happier than the day she got it in the first place. Once, in the days before computers, I lost four chapters of a book I had been writing when I left my only copy in a motel room drawer. For two weeks the motel insisted that cleaning personnel had thrown the stack of papers away. I was inconsolable. How could I summon the energy to start all over when for months I had worked at polishing and improving those four chapters? I would never find the same words. Then one day a cleaning woman who spoke little English called to tell me she had not thrown the chapter away after all. Believe me, I felt far more joy over the chapters that were found than I had ever felt in the process of writing them.
That experience give me a small foretaste of what it must feel like for a parent to get a phone call from the FBI reporting that the daughter abducted six months ago has been located at last, alive. Or for a wife to get a visit from the Army with a spokesman apologizing about the mix-up; her husband had not been aboard the wrecked helicopter after all. And those images give a mere glimpse of what it must feel like for the Maker of the Universe to get another member of His family back. In Jesus’ words, "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Grace is shockingly personal. As Henri Nouwen points out, "God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found." continued...
Taken from What's So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey. Copyright 1997 by Phillip Yancey. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
The Experience of Grace
interview with Philip Yancey
by Julie-Allyson Ieron
What is it about grace that
tugs at our hearts and fascinates our minds?
As a writer, I play with words all day long. I toy with them, listen for their overtones, crack them open, and try to stuff my thoughts inside. I’ve found that words tend to spoil over the years, like old meat. Their meaning rots away. Consider the word charity. When King James translators contemplated the highest form of love they decided on the word charity to convey it. Nowadays we hear the scornful protest, "I don’t want your charity!"
Perhaps I keep circling back to grace because it is one grand theological word that has not spoiled. I call it the last best word because every English usage I can find retains some of the glory of the original. Like a vast aquifer, the word underlies Western civilization, reminding us that good things come not from our own efforts, rather by the grace of God. Even now, despite our secular drift, taproots still stretch toward grace.
Grace contains the essence of the Gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun. The world thirsts for grace in ways it does not even recognize; little wonder the hymn Amazing Grace edged its way onto the Top Ten charts two hundred years after composition.
What did Jesus have to say
The world runs by ungrace. Everything depends on what I do. Jesus’ kingdom calls to another way, one that depends not on our performance but his own. He has earned for us the costly victory of God’s acceptance. Jesus described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines and rain falls on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into life on the hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables.
Each of these stories has at
its core an ending too good to be true - or so good it must be true.
The story of the Prodigal Son appears in a string of three stories by Jesus - the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son - all of which underscore the loser’s sense of loss, tell of the thrill of rediscovery, and end with a scene of jubilation. Jesus says in effect, "Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost." To God, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.
Where can we find grace?
Grace is everywhere, like lenses that go unnoticed because you are looking through them. Eventually God gave me eyes to notice the grace around me. I became a writer, I feel certain, in an attempt to reclaim words that had been spoiled by graceless Christians.
For some of my first books I teamed with Dr. Paul Brand, who had spent much of his life in a hot, arid region of South Indian serving leprosy patients - many from the Untouchable caste. In this most unlikely soil, Brand experienced and conveyed the grace of God. From people such as him, I learned grace by being graced. I came to know a God who is, in the words of the psalmist, "a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness."
Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it. I am one of those people. I think back to who I was - resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I do so because I know, that any pang of healing or forgiveness or goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I yearn for the church to become a culture of that grace.
This interview with Philip Yancey is brought to you courtesy of Zondervan Publishing House
Christian Author Overcomes Racist Past (9/04)
c. 2001 Cox News Service
Phillip Yancey has sold 5 million books, traveled the globe and won the highest awards in Christian publishing.
Yet he's been unable to make a fan of one 77-year-old Atlanta woman, despite years of personal effort.
His mother, Mildred Yancey, refuses to read any of her son's 15 books, though she shares his Christian faith. Nor will she say why.
``He's just like his father. He's a Yancey,'' Mildred Yancey says when asked about theological differences with her son. ``Let's just leave it at that.''
But Yancey won't. And in his newest book, ``Soul Survivor'' (Doubleday, $22.95), the Atlanta native reveals how his childhood church experiences drove a wedge in his family.
Yancey says his mother raised him in two fundamentalist churches that taught him to hate. The churches barred blacks from attending. He became a racist who once laughed when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of the first black family to move into his neighborhood.
Yancey believes the church also damaged his older brother, who turned to drugs and sexual experimentation.
Today, Yancey calls himself a church abuse survivor. While he's discussed the judgmental nature of the church in previous books, he's never done so in such personal detail. He says his faith was rekindled only after years of painful growth and the help of a Christian mentor who became the father he never had. (Yancey's father, Marshall, died of polio when Yancey was a year old.)
Now Yancey wants to help restore others.
``When you turn on the radio, you often hear people testify, `I was an alcoholic, I was a drug addict, until I found Jesus,''' Yancey, 51, says. ``I actually think it's harder to be converted from the church....The church has truths, but it's so mixed in with a lot of false messages.''
Yancey returned to Atlanta this summer during the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) convention to promote ``Soul Survivor.'' As he munched on a lunch of barbecue pork sandwich, french fries and iced tea, he was chatty and playful - not brooding, as his writings suggest.
Yancey has a lean face, framed by an Art Garfunkel Afro, and an athletic build. He's an avid mountain climber and skier. He lives in the mountains outside Denver, with Janet, his wife of 31 years.
In the field of Christian publishing, there's no author quite like him. A journalist for 30 years, he searches for evidence of faith in unusual places: a Somalian refugee camp, a funeral for a Christian who died of AIDS.
His nonfiction books routinely reach the top of the Christian-books best-seller lists and have won eight Gold Medallion awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.
In a typical book, Yancey will cite sources as various as existentialist writer Albert Camus, the music of Bach and scientists who explore the mystery of black holes in space. He even admits he can't answer some questions of faith.
Sam Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine, says Yancey has made it easier for other Christian writers to be honest. ``At least up until 10 years ago, there was a tendency for Christian writers to put a pious gloss on everything, to always come up with The Answer before they were done,'' Neff says. ``If they talked about personal struggle, they wouldn't do so before they worked all the way through.''
Compassion is another theme in Yancey's books. He says that grace - God's unconditional love for sinners - is the distinctive gift Christians offer the world. His books are full of pleas for evangelical Christians (Yancey is one) to be more loving toward people who fall outside their conservative political circle. Pain is the other subject that he gravitates to, Yancey says.
``Soul Survivor,'' though, celebrates faith. It contains portraits of 13 people who helped revive his faith, such as writers Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner and Leo Tolstoy, and activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Yancey is an active churchgoer, attending an evangelical Presbyterian church.
What Yancey reflects on throughout the book, though, are memories of his childhood churches in Atlanta, both now defunct. None of the memories are happy.
Church was the central experience in Yancey's world. He attended almost every day. Mildred Yancey and her husband wanted to be missionaries in Africa. When Marshall Yancey died, Mildred Yancey looked to Phillip and his older brother, Marshall Jr., to assume that role.
Mildred Yancey took her sons to two churches in the East Point and Hapeville area. Yancey says that the pastors of Colonial Hills Baptist Church and Faith Baptist Church preached that black people were cursed by God to be servants.
In the ninth grade, Yancey wrote a term paper praising the KKK. He says his family moved often, living in government projects and trailer parks. They consoled themselves that they were poor, ``but at least we were white,'' he wrote in ``Soul Survivor.''
``We moved a lot,'' Marshall Yancey Jr. concurs. ``And one thing we would hear is that we have to move because blacks were moving into our neighborhood.''
Phillip Yancey began to have misgivings about his church's philosophy when he grew older. His reading began to change him as well - the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and such books as ``To Kill a Mockingbird.''
Yancey applied himself to a writing career. In 1971, he joined the staff of Campus Life magazine. He became editor of the evangelical Christian magazine, which gives teens advice on topics such as love and self-image, raising its circulation from 50,000 to 250,000. He soon drifted into free-lance writing and books.
As part of his job, Yancey interviewed Christian leaders of his day. In his mid-20s, Yancey met Paul Brand, a surgeon who worked as a missionary among lepers in India. Brand became his father figure.
``He was the first person I knew up close that I really probed, who stood up to scrutiny,'' he says. ``He's committed but balanced, brilliant but humble, full of service but not groveling.''
Meanwhile, Yancey's brother abandoned the church and moved to California in 1973. Marshall Yancey told his mother that he was no longer a Christian, and he hasn't spoken to her in 30 years.
Phillip Yancey speaks to his mom, but it's a tense relationship. He says his mother has a different view of Christianity. ``She's more comfortable with the Old Testament God of judgment and wrath, with having very few people in the world that he loves,'' Yancey says.
He says his mother doesn't talk to him about his books.
``My mother used to say she didn't read the stuff I wrote,'' he says. ``I think she reads it, though, just as much to see if I've said anything about her.''
When reached at her home in Morrow, Mildred Yancey was terse. When asked about her son's assertion that she had raised her sons in a racist church, she was unapologetic.
``That was true of most of the churches at the time,'' she said.
Marshall Yancey, drug-free, married and working as a piano tuner in San Jose, Calif., says he's read his brother's books and is proud of his brother. But he won't share his faith.
``I tried every mode of Christianity that I could find,'' he says. ``There's nothing nobody could say or do that could create a change in me.''
Phillip Yancey continues to reach out to his brother and others he feels were damaged by organized religion.
``My message is, `Look, the church has made mistakes. The church is full of many of us who are victims, who have been bruised, lied to,''' he says. ``And yet don't give up on God because God has been badly represented by people.''
(The Cox web site is at http://www.coxnews.com)
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