Last Sunday, I drove nearly two hours with a few fellow church members to hear Philip Yancey lecture.
Several weeks ago, while hunting for information about UVA (where my youngest boy wants to go to college), I stumbled across a note that Yancey would be lecturing there at Cabell Hall. Huh. Interesting.
Without a lot of thought, I put together a trip and invited some folks. For a couple of different reasons.
First, I think I’ve read pretty much everything that Yancey has written, so I was curious to hear him speak in an academic setting. In fact, one of his books was one of the first books I had ever read that caused my brain to say “Whoa, someone understands my mind. My questions. Someone asks questions–out loud–that I have carried around for years. Years.”
Second, my Sunday School class (all of whom I invited, and which is, truly, filled with misfit creatures. Meaning, we fit nowhere else. We are all odd ducks. And not a one of them would be offended by that statement) is currently working through Yancey’s latest book: Vanishing Grace. It has, by far, been the most challenging study. For some, his words are convicting. For others, they are resounding. Others absolutely hate it. Needless to say, it has certainly fostered some excellent, um, debate.
I love a good debate.
In the week leading up to the lecture, though, I was determined to get out of attending. Work has been intense with 12 hour+ days. I’d not been to church for a few weeks. I had been on the road and in the air some, traveling. The Monday before the lecture, my son left for Navy boot camp in Chicago, and our days before that were jam-packed with prep and spending every moment we could with him, and the days after his departure had been a bit worrisome. Plus, I was, in general, angry. Out of sorts.
I wanted out.
But, alas, as the “organizer” of the trip, that would have been a bit rude. Maybe more than a bit. I certainly do hate being rude.
I really didn’t expect to hear anything earth shattering. Like I mentioned above, I’ve read all his stuff. I know what he has to say. What appealed to me in driving to hear him speak in person was this: I assumed that there would be a time of questions/answers. Unscripted, on-the-spot questions from the audience. It is one thing to write a book, with the “Delete” key readily accessible. What do you say when you are standing in front of 300 strangers, faced with hard questions. Questions that may even come from cynical-leaning souls.
Does your faith hold up? Does your God?
The lecture took place in a beautiful hall, with majestic murals and what probably was a sacred pipe organ (aren’t they all?). Yancey looked like Yancey, with that wheat shock of curly hair. He lectured on two themes that haunt him:
A side note: You may question if someone can be haunted by grace. Yes. Yes they can. A thousand times yes. I know that haunting well.
It eats at me and sends me scrambling for the safety of legalism, while the haunting of suffering sends me scurrying for the shelter of cynicism. Throw the sovereignty of God in there, and, well, yes. There it is.
Actually, I don’t understand grace more than I don’t understand suffering. There are evil, evil people in this world. And evil things that cause suffering. That I get. But a God full of grace and mercy? And people who dispense that grace (Yancey’s terms, not mine)?
That is hard for me to grasp. That unmerited favor. It’s nearly too, too much.
He spoke well, of course. I expected nothing less. Was it earth-shattering? No, probably because, like I mentioned above, I’m pretty familiar with his words. I actually found myself quite distracted by a lady sitting a few feet from me who kept verbally agreeing with every other sentence. That’s right. I wanted to turn to her and say “Mr. Yancey is not looking for your affirmation of his thoughts.” But that would have been rude.
I certainly do hate being rude.
About an hour into the lecture, Yancey drew his formal remarks to a close. Sure enough, the person who introduced him at the beginning gave instructions to the attendees on the next portion of the lecture. The set up was similar to a Southern Baptist Church Business meeting–you know the kind, with two microphones set up on the sides of the room, and please approach them to present your question to the speaker.
I sat up a little straighter and fixed my laser gaze on Yancey. This was what I was waiting for. The real reason behind my selfish organizing of this little foray to Charlottesville (which, may I add, has great pizza, thank you Mellow Mushroom).
Would his faith hold up. Would his God?
He answered several questions from different people. Good grief, I can be so judgmental. In my brain I was rating the questions. And the answers. I am a terrible person. I well know.
One of his answers, about what happens after this current life–a question regarding heaven, I suppose–alarmed me. I put much stock in that home-going day. Or the day that this current world is replaced with a new heaven and new earth. When suffering is no more. In fact, I’m still processing his answer to that one.
One of the questions regarding race in America was, quite simply, very irritating. It was a foolish question. Yancey handled it well.
Time was drawing to an end. The jury was still out in my judgmental, questioning mind. One of my questions, I believe, had been answered. Yancey’s faith had held up.
But would his God?
The last person stepped to the mic. A father who had lost his son, he thanked Yancey for his writings. They had been of comfort to him. But then he asked this:
“Mr. Yancey, much of your life work has centered in the world of suffering–the exploration of that. In fact, you yourself say that you are haunted by suffering. How have you been able to spend so much time there without allowing it to consume you?”
I hate to admit it, but my soul lurched.
Yes, indeed how?
Because, in my world, I work daily with people who are suffering a great deal. Tremendous suffering. They want to know if God is real. They have questions about theodicy. Real questions. They have seen much. And so many times, I fear I peddle a cross-stitch solution that I’m not entirely sure I grasp myself. Not that God is ever trite. Do not hear me say that, because that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that I so inadequately portray who He is to those who are hurting. I fail, often.
And, then, my own eyes have seen a bit in life, too. There is that, as well, I suppose.
Yancey then answered with this:
He finds himself not consumed with the haunting of suffering precisely because there are two hauntings in his life.
He is not consumed because he is also haunted by grace.
His faith held. His God held.
End of lecture.
When planes are flown into the alps purposefully and 150 people are killed, with martyrs are beheaded, when orphans are abandoned along the river in Kenya, when cancer steals mothers and fathers and even children, when marriages die, when alcoholism kills, when friends abandon, when poverty perpetuates, when sexual abuse is a thing even within the assumed safety of the church walls, when fathers are in prison, when churches feud over pointless things, what prevents us from being haunted by the suffering to the point of catatonia? To the point of hopelessness?
I often….o, so often, forget grace.
Forgive me, God. I am, such a fool.
Yancey must be right. Please. He must be. It must be that the haunting of grace overshadows the haunting of suffering.
It just has to be.
Grace upon Grace. Indeed.