Most of the time, the answer to that musical question these days is “ yes,” I would rather be a mule. Some of you may recognize the lyric clip from Bing Crosby’s long ago hit, “Swingin’ On A Star.” What you may not recognize is that song represents another first for me…I chose it to perform as a solo in an audition for a role in a musical murder mystery dinner theater play, “Doubtful Abbey,” with the GreenMan Theatre Troupe from Elmhurst a couple of weeks ago.
Though I am well acquainted with making a musical fool of myself in public, this was the first time I actually belted out a tune with more than my pride at stake. I walked into the group of about 25 potential cast members, raised my hand, and offered to go first. Plopped in my fresh CD accompaniment track, swigged down a gulp or two of lemon juice, and cut loose. Don’t worry…no one died. I actually did okay and was cast in a nice role in the production: “Tony,” an American movie musical producer visiting a British family in the 1940’s. But after rehearsing that song all the way home from Canada the day before, I had spent a fair amount of time lamenting the fate of an average mule. I have a connection with dumb animals. A Mule Whisperer.
A mule is an animal bred for hard labor. A sentence with no crime. He is sterile, so he is denied any familial connections possible for a four-legged equine hybrid of a horse and a donkey. And he is stereotyped as stubborn and stupid (even Bing sang “his back is brawny but his brain his week, he’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.”) The other night, I was watching a detective movie. This detective was on a date. She said to him, “I mean this in no way negatively…but you are the simplest man I’ve ever met. You know what you know and you do what you do…like a mule.” He nodded quickly and added, “or a jackass.” I love it when truth resonates within. So yes, I would rather be a mule and can lapse into jackass with little provocation. Heck, I’m almost there anyway. Put me down for “mule.” Definitely. I would rather be a mule. At least these days.
A strong beast of burden, this mule, yet has no soul, no need for grace. Non-sentient, he is not aware of subtle mistreatment though he is surely completely in tune with any who choose to physically mistreat him. Now, I will argue here on the mule’s behalf. Weak brain? Stupid? Nope, he is not. Stubborn? I prefer independent. Can a mule make mistakes? Can he choose the wrong path? Hard to tell. Driven by instinct is more likely. Yes, I would rather be a mule. Hook me up to a plow and let me drudge around in circles the rest of my days, unaware of much other than the tasty hay I receive as a reward for my hard work. And maybe an apple or carrot. Sounds so good.
But this little essay is really about grace, not a public service announcement from People for the Ethical Treatment of Mules (PETM). Mules are easier to talk about than grace, I guess. Much less complicated. But grace. One of those terms over-tossed around with an assumed but little explored meaning, I think. Yet, can I write about grace at a time when I am in most need of it? There may be no better time, day, or reason. I could be wrong, but the concept of grace seems to get taken for granted. Well, it’s critical at what evangelicals call the point of conversion…when a person fully realizes her or she has “sinned” or done things against God’s instructions and plan. That is indeed the pivotal base on which the rest of evangelical doctrine and church tradition is assembled, like so many Lego blocks snapped together to form a not completely original believer.
So where am I going with this? I already said. Around in circles. Mule-ish words formed by my cloddish hooves. Grace. Hmmm. As I asked earlier, can I even write about grace when I am in most need of it? Yes. I can. Might even be the best time. Doesn’t really matter, I guess. I’m going to go ahead. Feel free to leave now.
Yet, there are already umpteen-bazillion-four-hundred-thirteen books, blogs, tweets, squawks, toots, snorks, flips, bumps, weenies, blurps, stage dramas featuring Paul in a one-man-show, squeeks, hurls, notes, and reality TV shows on grace. What could I possibly add? Nuthin’. Never stopped me before. Fasten your seat belts. Or in my case, my plow harness. On to grace.
You know I’m well familiar with the evangelical “company line” on the grace thing. I got the “unmerited favor” and the G.R.A.C.E. (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense) info in Bible study. And I’m aware the root of the word “grace” is “gratia, ” a familiar sounding symbol from which we extract the word “gratitude.” Interesting, that. And I happen to believe those notions. That’s what bothers me. We believers boldly present, even brag on our God as the God of Unlimited Grace (UG), yet then strap on our swords to become self-appointed Neo-Knights-Templar guarding the Grail of Grace as though letting through one more little drip onto some needy sinful miscreant who has used up his share gets it lost forever. We emasculate God and render Him as sterile as the mule, making ourselves the arbiters of His grace as though we have somehow been delivered of our own daily need for it. No!
Look. I need grace. Always. Every day; no; every second. And like many I suppose, since my grand moment of “conversion” some 40 years ago, I’ve sort of taken grace for granted. Oh, I’ve needed and claimed a little here and there along the way. But mostly, it has become a mere topic of conversation…often centering around people I know to be clearly in need of some of that grace due to some grievous error on their part obvious to all through “sharing” (more on that in a moment).
Today, I flatly refuse to hide my imperfect human self. Not that I could cover it up anyway. I’m still standing, stubborn as a mule. With pride? No, just the facts. Because I deserve to be? Of course not. What I deserve is to be smashed like the fly swarming around the rear end of Balaam’s non-mute donkey. You think that jackass had some words…talk to the fly. There’s a story. No, I am not given what I deserve…to be smashed like that fly because I have received first God’s judgment; and then….yes, and then…I have received God’s grace. Yes, His “recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous grace always given to the wrong person.” (Tchividijan).
Yes, I am the “wrong person.” I don’t deserve grace. Never have, never will. But to receive this grace, I’ve had to sidestep the self-appointed “middlemen” in this little transaction. I had to climb over, out-maneuver, and ignore those sword-bearing, grace-rationing lovers of God. Guess what? Jesus died to give me direct access to the God of that “recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous grace always given to the wrong person.” (Tchividijan). I need no intermediary. Hallelujah.
Yet those humans with their hands on the Grace Control Spigot seem to open it freely at one point only…that of a sinner’s “conversion” experience. There, and only there, is the grace gusher flipped wide open, the worse the sinner, the better they like it (yes, I have indeed switched pronouns intentionally here and following…not “we” anymore but “they.” A very intentional distancing).
Like the old Southern Gospel song says, “They baptized Jesse Taylor in Cedar Creek last Sunday…Jesus gained a soul and Satan lost a good right arm…” Ol’ Jess received the grace he needed, and the human Grace Governors gained something too…a trophy to hold up to the world. Now, watch out Jess. Should you trip again and fall flat on your face in the mud, and you will, by the way, you’ll find those so willing to glom on the grace at first will now suddenly have to think about it. They may even meet to discuss it. Call it “sharing” which of course is a euphemism for gossip which also happens to be right smack on the sin list, too. And what does sin require? GRACE. Huh. Think of that.
Now it gets interesting. Those withholding grace are now also in need of it. I love the irony. And I refuse to judge. I choose to forgive and offer grace because I have so richly received it from God and a handful of those who love me. That said, just because I forgive and offer grace to others, doesn’t mean I want to hang out with them. Being shunned is painful, and though I’m mule-like (and mules stink after all) and perhaps prone to touching a hot stove more than the prerequisite once, I have no desire to provide anyone with my own tailbone as a target a second time. I’m not angry…I’m free. Those who see the need to ration grace and I will never be able to co-exist since I am so often in need of that which they seem to want to hoard.
But pardon me. I have roared off without first doing what I always do…define my key term. So, “grace.” What does it mean? That’s another key issue with this topic. Such a simple word with such a vast, almost imperceivable meaning. To help, I conducted an informal survey among family, friends, and that bastion of truth, the Worldwide Interweb. Here are their definitions, and then I’ll give mine.
“Contrast grace and mercy: mercy is not getting from God what we deserve; grace is getting from God what we don’t deserve.”
“Undeserved, unearned favor and kindness.”
“Grace is incessant transformative love.”
“Grace is the experience of the sweetness of the truth after a necessary initial humiliation….or the shock of truth’s sweetness.”
“Just read today Eph 2:7…in the coming age he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness…grace is the gift of God. Grace = unconditional kindness!”
“Not getting what you deserve.”
“Something we receive that we do not deserve…more specifically, kindness we receive.”
Writer Paul Zahl said, “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable….grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called gifts whatever they may be. It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves…grace is one-way love.” Amen, amen!
Pastor/Blogger Tullian Tchividijan offers, “Grace doesn’t make demands, it just gives. And from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person…the most extravagant sinners of Jesus’ day receive his most compassionate welcome. Grace is a divine vulgarity that stands caution on its head. It refuses to play it safe and lay it up. Grace is recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous. It doesn’t use sticks, carrots, or time cards. It doesn’t keep score….grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. It is one-way love.” “Stands caution on its head.” — I do love that phraseology.
I have been, I am, and I will always be “the wrong person” in the eyes of most. I’m growing used to that.
God’s irrational, undeserved, incessant, immeasurable, unconditional, promiscuous, unearned, vulgar, reckless, generous, transformative one-way love expressed through genuine favor and kindness, resulting in the sweetness of truth. That’s my cobbled together definition of grace, for what it’s worth. Every word is necessary and richer than Cabela’s German Chocolate Fudge with a side of Eli’s Ghirardelli Cocoa Cheesecake. For breakfast. And I have no idea why Cabela’s the elaborate outdoor sports store offers delicious fudge. A quandary.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to explore a couple of the more unusual grace descriptors. Grace is irrational? Of course. It isn’t grace if it makes sense…if it seems logical. Too close to being deserved or earned. Irrational. Grace is incessant? “Repeated without stopping…in a way that seems endless.” Absolutely…God’s grace reservoir can never be emptied and does not require throttling. Neither it nor mules are on the endangered list. Incessant. Grace is promiscuous? Now that’s a word no self-respecting evangelical would use as an adjective for God’s grace. But look at the denotative meaning…”mixed together, mingled without sorting…characterized by a lack of discrimination.” “Spread around with no reserve.” Yes! That is grace! No sorting, no discrimination. Promiscuous. Grace is vulgar. Here’s another surprise word. The meaning? “Common. A lack of culture, refinement, taste, restraint.” Down and dirty…right where I am. Exactly the kind of grace I need. Vulgar. Grace is the shock of truth’s sweetness. This may be the most profound of all…after an initial humiliation…the moment I realize my wholly unearned need for grace and marvel at God’s unfathomable offer of it…sweet, sweet truth indeed. The shock of truth’s sweetness…something I must keep to myself, evidently. Others seem to have their own ideas about how one’s response to grace looks. Shocked in sweetness doesn’t seem to fit but I know how it feels.
So yes, today I would rather be a mule. I admire their unique hybrid creation as offspring of a donkey and a horse, the resulting endurance, strength, patience, intelligence, abundance of common sense, and a strong sense of self-preservation in spite of being mislabeled as stubborn and stupid (Meredith Hodges, Lucky Three Ranch). I know what that’s like.
I am in harness, self-chosen, knowing what I know and doing what I do simply and methodically, but independent in my mind. Internally thankful and full of joy. Unaffiliated. Except with God, His Word, and those who love me. To those who matter, I have admitted my need for grace and hung my head in disbelief when it has been given. I will seek out others in need of this same grace and offer it freely in my best imitation of God’s irrational, undeserved, incessant, immeasurable, unconditional, promiscuous, unearned, vulgar, reckless, generous, transformative one-way love expressed through genuine favor and kindness, resulting in the sweetness of truth. I love that sweetness. It’s a delicious apple given to a hungry mule.