“I wonder why we listen to poets, when nobody gives a f—?” I don’t think I can write the word that finishes the phrase in question. I was driving home from Nashville and listening to one of my favorite traveling albums. The stereo was loud and I sang along to the music of Wilco when it came to the line in question. I’m not sure why I paused, but I’m glad I did, because it ignited a winding train of thought, one idea leading to the next, like the interstate that would inevitably lead me home.
I must admit I love this line of the song: such a poignant, weighty question. So what if he had to use an “extra special” word to drive the point home? That is what makes it all the more emphatic and well … poetic. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a huge fan of swearing. But there are times and places where a well placed word just seems to fit for some reason. Regardless, something inside of me made me hesitate at the prospect of singing this one word, alone, in my car, along with my deafening stereo. What was it?
As a young boy growing up in a Christian family—living in a small rural Christian community no less—you learn a few things about what it means to be a Christian. Of course there is the part about following Christ and trying to make your life resemble His in some way, but even more so, being a Christian means you go to church on Sunday and you don’t do one or any combination of the following: smoke, drink, swear, or get close to having premarital sex (holding hands is permissible).
I’m thankful for the way I was raised. It kept me out of trouble and saved me from tallying a list of regrets in my adolescent years that would be difficult to overcome later in life. Nowadays, I believe myself to be beyond such trivial matters as petty legalism and the childish beliefs of my past. But as I sat and questioned my inability to sing a single word along with the music, I wondered if I had really overcome my small-minded legalistic view of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Was it my conscience speaking, or like Pavlov’s dogs, was I simply responding instinctively to a familiar stimulus?
The questions that began to eat away at me as I maneuvered through the flatlands of southern Illinois gradually broadened in scope, like the colorful orange and red horizon over the miles of farmland spread out before me. The music continued to play but my mind was elsewhere. Why is it that the issues I learned as a child, which were indeed very black and white—even separated the sinners from the saints—had now somehow become so thoroughly gray in my young adulthood? Why can’t I swear alone in my car if I want to? I’m old enough—can’t I have a drink every now and then? Even sex becomes a different kind of issue on a college campus.
As all of these questions rattled around in my head, I instinctively returned to another staple of my junior high youth group days: What Would Jesus Do? I’ve later come to realize that although the WWJD movement was essentially a fad and a commercially profitable one at that, the question, although leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste in the wake of its popularity, is still most useful and important at times. In fact it may be the most important question of all. I considered Jesus sitting in the passenger seat of my car, bobbing his head to the music along with me. Imagine my shock when he suddenly appeared there, acting as if nothing strange had just happened. Imagine when I finally managed to lift my jaw from the floor—me—the first person to speak with Jesus face to face in 2,000 years! Then I work up the courage to speak, and the first words out of my mouth are… “Is it ok for me to cuss in the car by myself when I’m singing along with the music?” How ridiculous would I sound? I actually played it out in my head. I ask the question. He replies by asking what a cuss word is or simply by saying, “Seriously?! That’s the first question I get?”
My mental dramatization only served to further convince me of the absurdity of my quandary. Why do we get so worked up over things that don’t seem to matter in the end? And if they really don’t matter, why don’t I just drink and swear like a sailor, engaging in all sorts of promiscuous, morally gray activity? An answer came to me in the form of an idea that had been welling up in me for quite some time without my notice: the graceful Christian.
Although the idea wasn’t fully formed, it had come to me in a sermon a few weeks back. Of course it wasn’t a new idea—they never are. But it struck me immediately as profound and critical. When I use the term “graceful Christian” I am speaking of grace in both the ballerina and the religious sense. In fact, I believe the ballerina grace may be achievable only by way of divine grace.
The graceful Christian exists, to borrow a concept from Gerald May, amidst grace as the very context within which we live our lives. It means God’s grace, the only thing guaranteeing us even our next breath, spurring us on to live in a manner worthy of the grace we have been freely offered, even immersed in. I could swear if I wanted to, and maybe not even feel morally astray, but what would I accomplish? What would I be telling other people about myself? That I had no better words to use? I could drink to elevation, but I’d surely wind up doing or saying something I’d regret. How graceful would that be?
The point is not to live rightly by some detailed code of conduct—far from it. What I am speaking of is graceful life—the free will of humankind drenched to the bone in God’s abundant grace. Some people say there’s no freedom in religion. Jesus said there’s no freedom in enslavement to our own selfish desires. Time after time we find ourselves returning to the prison cells where we no longer belong. Confinement and legalism can be comforting, but only for a while. Sooner or later we realize we are no more capable of earning our salvation than a smelly old sock is of walking to the washer and cleaning itself. Grace beckons each of us; true joy and freedom are its constant companions, inviting us to live as we were meant to live; inviting us to live as we desire to live. This is the invitation to the life of a graceful Christian, and we’d be foolish not to accept.