Grace Notes, by Nancy Kennedy

Sometimes I get letters or emails from people that make me want to spit tacks.

I’m not talking about critical letters. (Those make me want to hide under my covers, suck my thumb and cry.)

I’m talking about letters from people, from fellow Christians, who are sure God isn’t pleased with them and who are desperate for a how-to to help them get back on track, to finally be faithful to God.

They beg for advice, for wisdom, for some secret to get them back into God’s good graces, to win back his smile and approval so he won’t order them to get out of his sight.

Lisa in Louisiana writes me every so often, sending her letters to me in care of my church. I think she found me through one of my books.

Her most recent letter made me crazy angry. Not at her! Rather, at whoever has been telling her that she has to be v-e-r-y careful of what she does, thinks and says, that there’s a point she can’t cross (although no one will tell her what that point is) or she risks losing her salvation.

She’s depressed, worried, fearful. She wants to know how to pray, how to be “on fire for God.” She confessed to me that she’s not and that when she goes to church she feels she has to hide how she really feels (and, therefore, who she really is).

She said she’s living a lie at church, that “mostly everyone thinks I’m doing good.”

“Plus,” she said, “I am not into God, but I want to be.”

She added, “I don’t want to backslide again because I don’t want to go to hell.”

She feels alone in her faith and is afraid to talk to anyone in her church, so she wrote to me, a stranger 900 miles away.

While I’m honored and humbled, I’m also angry. She should be talking to her friends at her church — or her pastor. What does it say about a church where its members are afraid to be themselves, to be honest about their lack of zeal and their need for encouragement? What does that say about the leadership, the pastors and teachers, when the people feel condemned — condemned by God?

“There is, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Can it be any clearer? No condemnation. None. Zero.

We take something so simple as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16) and we add caveats and stipulations, fine print at the bottom of the page, exceptions and rules, hurdles to jump over, hoops to jump through.

We take God’s gifts of grace and mercy and rest and peace and turn them into a strategic system of rules and regulations. In some churches, the people care more about the length of a woman’s skirt than her struggle with understanding the concept of “no condemnation.”

In some churches, the appearance of holiness is more important than showing mercy to one another, gathering knowledge more superior than serving one another with kindness.

In some churches (not all or even most, but some), women like Lisa from Louisiana feel they have nowhere to go with their questions and fear, so they hide their secret shameful feelings of unworthiness as a Christian, afraid that God’s grace has a limit.

Church becomes a place of condemnation not redemption, and this makes me furious. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s not what God had in mind when he created the church.

Church should be a safe place, a soft place. I’m not talking about a place where sin is affirmed and celebrated, but where sinners are accepted and loved, and even where it’s famously taught that everyone, from those in the pews to those who preach from the pulpit, are sinners, too.

That’s the only way the church will be a healing place for people like Lisa from Louisiana — people like you, people like me.

There truly is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That’s where the healing starts. It begins with believing that if God says we are right with him, then we are. If Jesus said no one can snatch us from his hand, then we are safe and secure.

Imagine what the local church would be like if all sermons started with that. There might be fewer people writing desperate letters to strangers for help and more people offering hope to those sitting next to them in the pew.

People outside the church would notice. They already notice whatever we do, especially when we get it wrong.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached via email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.

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