Cover image for Uncommon graces : Christlike responses to a hostile world
Uncommon graces : Christlike responses to a hostile world
Vawter, John.
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Publication Information:
Colorado Springs, CO : NavPress, 1998.
Physical Description:
189 pages ; 22 cm
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Central Library BV4630 .V38 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The world we live in today is hostile. From road rage to unkind words, our society suffers from a lack of grace. It doesn't have to be that way, writes John Vawter. "Uncommon Graces" examines character traits and attitudes that bring dignity to human relationships, injecting grace into the day-to-day dehumanized society in which we find ourselves. If you want to treat people with kindness and dignity, "Uncommon Graces" will encourage and equip you to show grace to a hostile world.

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Vawter, pastor of Bethany Community Church (Tempe, Ariz.), claims that we live in a graceless world. He divides his book into two parts. In part one, he discusses the uncommon graces he believes today's world needs: gentleness, attentiveness, loyalty, candor, mercy, kindness and repentance. Vawter uses personal anecdotes and examples from Scripture to illustrate the power of these uncommon graces. For instance, he describes how his father, whose speech and motor skills had been severely affected by a brain tumor, reached out in a simple gesture of loyalty to a longtime community friend. In part two, he asserts that we can nurture uncommon graces by building community and living according to the Golden Rule. Vawter believes that the hostility and violence he sees characterizing our world can be changed simply by enacting the virtues of respect and graciousness. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Gentleness     SOMEONE ONCE TOLD ME OF HIS EXPERIENCE WITH A professor that illustrates the power of gentleness: "During my last term of seminary, I was looking forward to sitting under a professor renowned for his scholarship and keen mind. But when I finally got a seat in his class, I was stunned.     "The professor walked up and down the classroom aisles, stopping in front of a student's desk and firing off a semiautomatic round of questions. The barrage continued until the student was caught in a contradiction. Here's a sampling of the interrogations:     `Mr. Smith, have you ever committed adultery?'     `No,' the student said.     `Mr. Smith, do you believe in the Bible?'     `Yes.'     `Do you believe in it wholeheartedly?'     `Yes.'     `Would you ever disobey it?'     `Not knowingly.'     `Do you believe that Jesus always spoke the truth?'     `Yes.'     `Do you believe that Jesus spoke the truth when He said that if a man looks on a woman with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultery?'     `Yes.'     `Have you ever looked on a woman with lust?'     `Yes, I guess so.'     `Then, Mr. Smith, you have committed adultery. You lied.'     "I grew increasingly uncomfortable with how the professor treated us. It didn't seem possible that Jesus would treat anyone this way. And it didn't seem right to just sit back and let him abuse us. I wanted to talk to him in private, but this professor was a thoroughly intimidating man. What if he got angry and chewed me out? What if he lowered my grade for daring to challenge his authority?     "In the end, I decided to go to his office outside of normal student conference hours. I remember approaching his door with a prayer that God would help me maintain a gentle spirit. I planned to ask for only a few minutes of his time and wanted to avoid any hint of rudeness. Above all, I wanted to respect his position of authority.     `Professor, may I have five minutes with you?'     `Yes. Please come in.'     `Professor, I'd like to ask you just one question.'     `Yes?'     `Would you be willing to pray and ask God if He approves of how you treat the students in your class?'     `What?'     "A look of surprise and irritation crossed his face.     "I repeated the question, trying to hide the tremble in my voice.     "The professor bristled and leaned forward. `Young man, you don't have a scheduled appointment with me right now, do you?'     "`No,' I said, `but I asked you for five minutes, and you said I could have them.' I glanced down at my watch. `I've only taken three, so I have two minutes left. I'm not asking you to respond to me. I just ask you to ask God privately if He approves of how you treat the students in your class.'     "His only response was a long, cold gaze.     "I stood up and extended my hand. The professor reluctantly shook it.     "`Thanks for your time,' I said, then left the office.     "While I never got a direct response from him, the heat-lamp interrogations disappeared, at least in that class.'"     The student succeeded because he followed Solomon's wisdom in Proverbs 25:15: "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone." He succeeded because he was gentle. He didn't challenge the power the professor was wielding with a greater power of his own. The student approached the professor in a respectful manner to uncover an area of his life where change was needed, but he left the final persuading up to God. If we want to demonstrate the uncommon grace of Jesus to a world that worships power, we must set aside our combativeness to embrace gentleness. A SOCIETY THAT'S "IN-YOUR-FACE" Embracing gentleness isn't easy because we live in a world where gentleness is a rare commodity--even in someplace as middle America as Minnesota.     When I lived there, the police chief of Minneapolis came under fire from the city council, the mayor, and the police union. He fought hard to keep his job but ultimately was pushed out. The whole process of his removal was anything but gentle. At his final press conference he said, "I do not mind tough questions, I do not mind tough issues, but please, treat me like an equal, another human being.... I deserve that. Everybody deserves that. When that doesn't happen, it's intolerable, inexcusable."     Others, like Alexander Moore, echo the police chief's concern about harsh and irrational treatment. Moore, who is an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California, observes rampant rudeness at work everywhere in our society. He feels it grew out of the confrontational spirit of the Sixties. Activists used boycotts, sit-ins, protest marches, and threats to achieve their goals. Over the last thirty years, we have learned to view such activities as routine. Today confrontation is one part of a destructive code of conduct that enflames our relationships with one another. When violent confrontation is a normal part of our lives, there's little room left for gentleness.     The rise in negative political ads during the last decade is another indicator that "in-your-face" confrontation has become an accepted part of American life.     Most of us remember the Willie Horton ad that helped George Bush beat Michael Dukakis by portraying the governor as irresponsible in his treatment of convicted criminals. The ad was widely criticized as both racist and inaccurate. Still, it contributed to a Bush victory by sowing seeds of doubt about our personal safety under a Dukakis presidency.     Bill Clinton was equally successful in portraying all Republicans as "welfare slashers" in the 1996 election. The truth was that both Democrats and Republicans were looking for ways to limit the growth of all entitlement programs because they made up such a large part of the federal budget. These ads are created only to help win elections. They work because many of us are moved by the confrontational spirit they project and the simplistic stereotyping they contain.     The media also has picked up on the appeal of this "in-your-face" philosophy. CNN's Crossfire and ABC's Politically Incorrect routinely feature individuals who interrupt, insult, and generally mistreat one another. These programs pile up impressive ratings, but they take the dignity of public debate down several notches. They encourage the dangerous notion that anyone who disagrees with us is our enemy and should be destroyed by any means necessary.     It wasn't always this way.     One of my early recollections of a political campaign dates back to 1972. George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey were vying for the Democratic nomination for president. The microphones were on when the two met on stage for a debate. The exchange before the debate went something like this:     "Good to see you, Hubert."     "Nice to see you, George."     "How's Muriel?"     "Good. How's Eleanor?"     Then for the next hour they vigorously and sometimes heatedly debated the issues. When the official exchange ended, the two men again shook hands.     "See you soon, George. Greet Eleanor for me."     "Thanks. Hello to Muriel."     It was clear that these two men had great personal respect for each other. They were attacking each other politically, not personally. It was a debate about principles, not personalities. THE CHURCH BECOMES HOSTILE TERRITORY Since the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and other national scandals, a confrontational spirit also has crept into the church. The Sixties legacy of violent protest has combined with a growing distrust of authority figures to make our churches hostile territory, especially for pastors and other church leaders. Even ordinary church members often are caught up in power struggles and various kinds of conflict. I've seen more than I care to remember. Unfortunately, some I can't help but remember.     One I vividly recall took place in a church I once pastored, where a member criticized me relentlessly. I met with the man privately and said, "Please, Adam, I don't want to play war games with you. I want to be your pastor. I want to grow with you. I want to be your friend."     Adam shrugged his shoulders, said little, and walked away.     Some time later, I was playing golf with a friend of his. "You know, Adam is always asking me about your family, your relationship with your kids, and your personal life," said the man. "I think he's trying to find areas of weakness in your life."     "Why would he do that?"     "I guess his own father was a pastor and was never home," the man replied.     "Oh, now I get it. He's still angry with his father. He's projecting that anger toward me. He's assuming I must have the same type of poor relationship with my kids that his own dad had with him."     Because we live in a culture that teaches us to distrust authority and to confront anyone we dislike, it's gotten easier for Christians to mistreat one another. We're surrounded with "in-your-face" thinking, and that influence follows us through the church doors.     In such a society, those of us who have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord must make certain we are being channels for His grace and love. If grace has become a rare commodity in our day, perhaps it is because we have forgotten Paul's warning in Romans 12:2: "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed. Thus you will prove in practice that the will of God's good, acceptable to him and perfect"(PH). AN ENDLESS SEARCH FOR ENEMIES In the church, as in society, our confrontational approach is not limited to how we treat those in authority. A more troubling attitude is also at work. It says, "If you don't agree with me, you're my enemy."     As Christians, one way we do this is by putting our general preferences, our personal convictions, and our most important doctrinal positions on an equal level. As a result, if someone doesn't see eye to eye with us on every single cultural, economic, political, moral, and theological issue, we think we have the right to be belligerent toward them.     This problem became painfully clear to me when I heard of a conversation a friend had at the time President Clinton's mother died. My friend doesn't agree with every decision that President Clinton has made, but when the President's mother passed away, this man felt genuine sympathy for him. Not only did the President have to deal with a very difficult loss, but just as soon as he had buried his mother, he had to board a plane for an important meeting with the Russians. My friend tried to explain to a Christian acquaintance how he was feeling: "I know that when I buried my father, it took a toll on me. I was ineffective for a long while afterward."     The other man's first response was, "Did you know his mother went to the horse track?"     My friend was stunned. As he listened to his acquaintance ramble on, he soon realized that this other man hated Bill Clinton. Because he disagreed with the President's politics, it made Clinton his enemy. That meant that anyone associated with the President also had to be his enemy. His obsessive hatred had caused him to dehumanize the President's mother. Her presence at the racetrack was an excuse to keep him from feeling any sort of compassion toward her or the President. It was just one more reason to hate Bill Clinton.     I've known far too many Christians who are like this. Their lives seethe with anger, which they try to explain away as conviction. After years of seeing this kind of thing happen in churches, I've come to a surprising conclusion: Anger is not the root problem--dishonesty is. THE HIDDEN CULT OF DISHONESTY Dr. Ray Burwick is a professional counselor in Birmingham, and I once heard him make a remarkable statement. "Some of the smartest people who come to see me are the best liars. They pay money to sit there for sixty minutes and lie."     "Why would they do that?" I asked.     "Because they don't want to face their own weaknesses," he said.     His comments really struck home. I know this happens more often in my life than I would like to admit, and it's likely that you struggle with it as well. When we fail to confront our weaknesses honestly and regularly, we end up deceiving ourselves and those around us.     This deception is subtle because it often grows out of deep and very personal hurts we have suffered but are unwilling to face. To make ourselves feel better, we criticize something else--or some one else. In the process, we become secret members of a hidden cult of dishonesty within the church.     Liars for Christ.     Dishonesty makes the church a dangerous place, full of dark and deceptive shadows. Rather than learning the hard discipline of speaking the truth in love, we learn instead to cover up our resentments. We think the cover-up hides the issue. But resentments have an artesian quality about them, and they're always bubbling up somewhere else: A bit of gossip over the phone. A sarcastic comment over lunch. A refusal to return a phone call. An outburst at a committee meeting. In the process, gentleness is driven out the door, and some truly bizarre situations slip in to fill the vacancy.     I once heard about a denominational state committee that wanted to get rid of its superintendent. Committee members constantly criticized his performance behind his back, yet no one ever sat down to explain his shortcomings. The situation was made worse by the lack of any written job description for his position. Such an objective set of criteria would have forced the committee to face its dishonesty, treat the superintendent with Christian courtesy, and tell him, "You're not doing a good job. You need to improve in these areas."     Instead, for five years in a row, they refused to give him a raise. Eventually, he got the message and left. The committee members felt justified in their actions. According to their standards, they had done nothing wrong. No one expressed disapproval of the superintendent, and no one said anything ugly about him--at least, not to his face. No one shouted at him, and no one cursed him. In their eyes, the man was handled in a very Christian way.     I wonder how it looked in God's eyes. I wonder how He felt about that half decade of their punishing, demeaning, and humiliating this man, not simply by refusing to give him a raise but by refusing to grant him the dignity of an honest discussion about their concerns.     I can't say what God saw through His eyes, but I can say what I saw through mine. There was nothing Christian about what they did. There was no grace and there was no truth in how they treated him. From what I saw, they were liars--lying to the superintendent, lying to themselves, and lying to God.     Compare the dishonesty of that situation with the honesty of this one. In a doctoral class that I was teaching at one of the leading seminaries in the country, one pastor wrote this: Hello, my name is Ron, and I am a liar. Oh, I don't tell big black lies--just little white ones. In fact, some may not call them lies at all. They might say I have good intentions but don't always follow through with them. If you were to ask my children, they'd probably just say that Dad always changes his mind. Others may say I don't keep my word. What I haven't been, to use the popular phrase, is a "promise keeper." This awakening didn't come all of a sudden. It came over a period of time, through the process of reading books and seeing how the years had eaten away at the trust my wife and kids used to have in me. Before you wonder what kind of ogre I am, let me clarify. I am a decent dad, a kind and patient husband, and a great pastor. My wife respects me, though the "little foxes" have eaten away at the love she once felt. But I am in the process of changing. I am going to be more intentional about the commitments I make, more proactive instead of reactive, and I am going to rely on God's strength to change me.     I was shocked that he would be so honest. But then I realized that this was a person who was genuinely committed to letting Christ deal with the issues in his life, even the little white lies that seem so safe to tell. THE FATAL ATTRACTION OF "SAFE SINS" Dr. Dennis Baker, former General Director of the Conservative Baptist Association, says, Every social system breeds its own set of sins. You have to be strong to swim against the current they generate. And if you get healthy enough to recognize what is happening and refuse to go along with it anymore, the system will turn and attack you. You will be left with the choice of either leaving the group and its dysfunctional system or being victimized by it.     At one time or another, we all have found ourselves involved in churches or other Christian institutions where some pattern of sin was neither acknowledged nor corrected. One way we try to survive in such an environment is to isolate ourselves from the negatives and focus on the positives. The problem with this strategy is that our standing within the organization may survive, but if it does, it survives at the expense of our spiritual lives. You see, what we participate in is not the root issue. What we tolerate is. For in time, toleration leads to participation.     According to Dr. Baker, such groups often tolerate and even promote standards of behavior that have nothing to do with a healthy commitment to Jesus Christ. As long as we are a part of the Christian subculture, we will be vulnerable to such "safe sins"--sins that are tolerated, making them "safe" to commit. The problem with "safe sins" is that, in the end, they aren't. In the beginning, they nibble away at our spiritual lives, but in the end, they devour them. By tolerating these sins, we protect ourselves from the ruthless self-examination necessary to improve our lives.     When "safe sins" go unchallenged, something of a Christian fantasy religion is allowed to thrive--a religion that condemns alcohol and adultery, yet condones, say, arrogance and abrasiveness. There should be a support group in the church for those addicted to "safe sins"--an AA for the arrogant and the abrasive.     But that won't happen, because the church is obsessed with other sins. Like the church whose pastor was called on the carpet for saying he didn't believe the Bible taught total abstinence from alcohol. He came to that conclusion after a long and careful examination of both the Old and New Testaments. He wasn't trying to promote drinking. He didn't even drink himself. He was simply trying to be honest in his handling of the Scriptures. One of his most relentless critics was a man who repeatedly said, "I believe in sinless perfection, and that includes total abstinence." He accused the pastor of going soft on both personal purity and biblical theology.     As I watched this situation develop, I discovered that the man who was mercilessly berating this pastor was in his third marriage. I wondered how many times his wives had been berated like this. How many times had they been backed into a corner and beaten with his words? But such domestic disturbances were "safe sins," at least in his eyes.     No one in the congregation confronted him. No one was courageous enough to say, "Stop it. Your attack against the pastor is wrong. Your attitude is wrong. Your accusations are wrong, and we won't tolerate it."     Because they did tolerate it, a place was given for that man's self-deception to express itself. As a result, every antagonistic word he spoke pushed gentleness further out the door, giving room for harshness to enter the church. TRUE GENTLENESS IS GRACIOUS AND TRUTHFUL Such brutal behavior has become so commonplace in society and the church that we lack the clear picture of an alternative. But if there is an alternative, what does it look like? And where can we go to find it?     The Bible.     In the Bible the apostle John says, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth " (John 1:14, emphasis added). The Word was Jesus. When John says that Jesus was "full of grace," he was not describing someone passive or weak. Jesus was wonderfully effective in confronting people with the truth, but He did it graciously.     The story of the woman caught in adultery illustrates the balance with which Jesus exhibited these characteristics (John 8:3-11). The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus, hoping to lure Him into a situation where He might contradict the Law or discredit Himself in the eyes of the people. The bait to the trap was a woman they had caught in the act of adultery. Though the Law required they also bring her partner, they failed even to mention him , which suggests she had been the victim of a setup.     The religious leaders wanted to put Jesus in a position where He would either have to be gentle on the criminal or gentle on the crime. Either way they had Him. In the waiting silence, the people wondered. Would Jesus stand up for the sinner ... or for the standard? Standing up for the sinner would give evidence for the accusation that Jesus was soft on the Law, therefore an enemy of the faith. Standing up for the standard would give evidence for the accusation that He was hard on the lawbreaker, therefore an enemy of the people.     But Jesus refused to step into the steel jaws of their "either/or" trap. Instead, He turned the trap on them. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." And one by one, starting with the oldest, the self-appointed jurors left. When they all were gone, Jesus asked the woman, "Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." And He said, "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."     His example reminds us that we have all received grace from God and that we are all expected to pass it on. Letting the Holy Spirit develop gentleness in us is one of the ways we can do this. For me, though, it has been slow in developing, especially when I am faced with mechanical breakdowns.     I am not a mechanically talented person. When my car breaks down, I have to rely on a mechanic to tell me what needs to be done. While I was living in Minneapolis, the radio stopped working in my Volkswagen convertible. I took the car to the dealership where. I had purchased it and had all the work done on it over the years. Later that afternoon I got a call from the mechanic: "Mr. Vawter, your cassette deck is broken. It will need to be replaced."     "Okay, do it," I said.     Later on that day, I picked up my car and cruised onto the highway, putting my favorite B. B. King tape into the cassette slot ("Nobody Loves Me but My Mother and She Could Be Jiving Me, Too"). Nothing happened. I wheeled the car around and headed back to the dealership.     "Excuse me, but my cassette deck still isn't working," I said to the mechanic.     "That's because the back speakers are burned out and you need to replace them, too," he replied.     I felt of tide of anger rising from my ankles and working its way up my body.     "Wait a minute. You told me the problem was the cassette deck. Shouldn't you have tested the back speakers first to make certain they weren't the problem?"     Another mechanic overheard our conversation and broke in, "Listen, mister, we know our business. Speakers don't burn out by themselves. The deck makes that happen."     Feeling as though they were treating me like an idiot, I instinctively wanted to strike back. But there were two of them and one of me, and I didn't need a calculator to figure the math on those odds. Besides, they were holding tools. As I paused to collect myself and consider my options, that's when things got really complicated. The Holy Spirit reminded me that I was a follower of Christ. What would Jesus do? Fight or walk away? Or would He say something that would keep Him from being forced into either of those options?     I took a deep breath. "Gentlemen, I may not be communicating well, so I apologize for that. But I'm also concerned that you're not listening to me. We need to resolve this problem."     My unexpected change of tone and attitude caught them off guard. Because I softened my approach, we were able to discuss the situation. In a few minutes, they agreed that the speakers could not have failed by themselves. In the end, they replaced the speakers free of charge. And in the process, they taught me a valuable lesson: that more can be accomplished with a few gentle words than with a toolbox full of angry ones. (Continues...) Copyright © 1998 John Vawter. All rights reserved.

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