“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I once knew a girl from Switzerland named Olivia. Tall and lanky, she was vivacious and outgoing—a beautiful girl who dipped sugar cubes into strong Spanish espresso and popped them between her lips, all the while smiling like she had invented a new way to drink coffee. Of course, Olivia did everything differently and was proud of it. She often entertained us with her latest escapades in broken English while we sat in the little coffee shop just off the Gran Via in Madrid.
The first day I met Olivia at the language school where we were both learning Castellan Spanish, she was wearing a bright green sweater with one of those alligator icons that were so popular in the early eighties. When I saw her the next day, she was wearing it again. In fact, when I said good-bye to Olivia six months later, she was still wearing that blasted green sweater.
Let me explain.
After thirty days or so, the sweater began to smell. “Surely she’ll buy another sweater,” I told myself. “After all, her father is an ambassador, for crying out loud—she can afford it!” But she didn’t, and after the second month, I could smell her in the classroom even though I sat two full rows over.
When month three rolled around, I started avoiding Olivia. She was a sweet girl, but let’s face it—she stunk to high heaven. Like a lot of Europeans, her bathing was sporadic, and when you added that malodorous green sweater to the mix. . . . Well, you understand why I went in the opposite direction when I saw her coming. When I couldn’t gracefully evade her, I’d stop breathing through my nose and try taking in air through my mouth while we conversed. Then, as soon as I could, I’d make a quick getaway.
My luck ran out when a new term started during month four. Not only did Olivia’s sweater get more difficult to bear, but I was assigned the seat next to hers in the afternoon language lab we attended every day. Olivia would put on a headset and prop herself up against the little partition that separated our learning areas, and I’d spend the next hour breathing the pungent air that wafted my way. Conjugating Spanish verbs was never easy, but suddenly it got harder.
Around month five, I’m guessing Olivia became aware of the problem because she started dousing herself and the green sweater with a fairly cheap perfume that you could pick up in any store in Madrid. Now the odorous breezes were rounded out with a bouquet of roses and jasmine. But no matter how much cheap perfume she sprayed on, the smell was never covered. It bled through like a magic marker on porous paper.
During month six, we graduated the term, and I said good-bye to Olivia and her green sweater. I’ll be honest—my nose was glad to see her go.
The other day, Terry and I were talking about our experiences of living in Spain. I laughed out loud when I recalled that green sweater. But later, in my quiet time with God, an arrow of truth pierced my heart so violently, I felt ashamed.
God reminded me of the times I refused to take off the green sweater of my old life. When it started getting stinky, I just doused myself in cheap grace. You know, the kind that ignores the fact that Christ went to the cross and why he went and what really happened there. The same cheap grace that downplays the need for regret, remorse, and life-change and then has the nerve to loudly complain that life as a Christian should be easier and require less commitment on my part.
Yeah, that’s the cheap grace I’m talking about. When things started getting stinkier, I’d just dab a little more cheap grace behind the ears and march boldly into God’s holy sanctuary, where my reeking assumptions cheapened the very sacrifices Jesus laid on the altar for me.
“How do you stand me, Lord?” I cried. “How can you stand to be around me?”
Several years ago, Scott Chapman coined the phrase “practical atheism.” He defines it as believing that God exists while behaving as if he does not. In other words, it’s a faith that’s so far removed from a person’s everyday life that it makes no real, practical difference in the way he or she lives.
I think practical atheists wear green sweaters and cheap grace.
No matter how much I said I believed and doused myself in cheap grace, it didn’t begin to cover the stench of what I wouldn’t let go. I don’t want to wear this cheap grace anymore. I can’t stand the smell of myself.
I’ve been reading a book my friend Jon Walker wrote called Costly Grace. The book affirms the truth I have known for a long time in my heart. Costly grace is pricey—it costs us everything we have, but it’s worth it. Costly grace compels us to take off our stinky green sweaters and bathe ourselves in the forgiveness that makes us clean and sweet-smelling. It requires obedience that results in a change of habits and thoughts, a new outlook, and even a change to the way we “do” relationships.
Real grace brings transformation to our lives. And there’s no need for cheap perfume when we’re taking a bath in that.
Life Note: Living out real grace isn’t easy, but life’s too short to settle for cheap grace. Every time we put it on, we lower the standard of the Gospel. If we give up our lives to Christ, he gives real life back. There’s no need for cheap grace because the stinky old life doesn’t exist anymore. When Christ lives in us, we really do change.
“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.” (Gal. 2:20–21 NLT)
© 2011 Kathy Chapman Sharp
When I posted this photo on Twitter, my friend, Philip Nation tweeted back congratulations, saying: “Nothing like seeing a book with your name on the cover. Very excited for you.” He’s right. When I ripped open the box and lifted out the first copy (promised to my encouraging friend Carol Ann Williams), it was like coming full circle. A lot has happened in the last 11 months! Yes, there’s a sense of accomplishment but more than anything I’m still amazed and humbled that I got the opportunity to write this book. A special thanks to my friends at Leafwood Publishers/ACU Press for the privilege.
I was already running late when I exited the interstate to continue my journey down the winding country road. I was on my way to spend the weekend teaching on servant leadership at a retreat center, and the last strong rays of sunshine shimmered through the trees, temporarily blinding me as they rushed to finish their work before stealing away and turning the sky to blue velvet dusk. The falling leaves reminded me that summer was long gone and wouldn’t be back for a while.
In my rush to get out of Nashville and miss the afternoon traffic, I’d decided to gas up somewhere down the road. Now, glancing at the gas gauge, I realized I’d be running on fumes if I didn’t stop soon.
Around the bend was Chet’s Quik Stop. I turned in and pulled up to the gas pumps, reading the handmade signs taped to them. “Come inside if you need a receipt,” it said. “No problem,” I thought, as I pulled up to the regular pump. “I don’t need a receipt, just gas.” But after trying to swipe my credit card twice, I realized there was more than a receipt problem. I’d actually have to go inside and pay. With precious minutes ticking away, I sighed with annoyance, grabbed my purse, and headed into the dilapidated mini-mart that also moonlighted as a restaurant.
As I made my way around the small lime green car parked directly in front of the door, the odor of old grease hit me. It hung so densely in the air, I knew I would come out smelling like the hot wings and pizza Chet advertised on the tired old sign out front.
I got in line at the checkout counter behind an enormous woman purchasing several bottles of Mountain Dew. Her head had been recently shaved, and her ill-fitting clothes were sloppy and smelly. Pulling out handfuls of change from her pockets, she clumsily counted out the nickels and dimes with her fat, puffy fingers while attempting to engage the disinterested clerk in conversation. Her stab at witty small talk made me cringe. Full of improper grammar and word usage, her loud, unruly words—like her person—were coarse, repulsive, and offensive.
It was obvious she wasn’t in a hurry. “Come on, people,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got places to go and people to see.” Folding my arms tightly, it was all I could do to keep from heaving a sigh out loud. I tapped my foot; frustrated with the turn my day had taken. I tried to think happy thoughts, but when my eyes landed on the three large rolls of fat where her neck should have been, I became mesmerized by a huge boil at the base of her skull. Even though her hair had started growing back, it wasn’t long enough to cover the festering sore nestled between the giant folds of fat.
Oblivious of my presence, she finally finished paying and—in one sweeping motion—picked up her plastic bags, turned her massive body, and headed straight for the door all the while spouting a string of curse words rude enough to make a sailor blush. Had I not been quick in stepping back, she would have plowed me down. As it was, she met my gaze. I felt her thick contempt for me, the city slicker, as she glanced down at my leather boots and well-planned outfit. The sneer on her face dared me to speak.
In that moment, I knew I had two choices on how I could react to the hate pouring from her eyes.
I could play her game and reply with a cold, disdainful look that said, “What a bothersome creature you are. Please get your obese, mouthy self out of my way.”
Or, I could be like Jesus.
In an instant, I knew there was no choice.
Compelled by a sense of overwhelming kindness, I returned her candid stare. Love that could only come from God coursed through me; in that moment, I was able to reach out my hand, touch her arm, and say, “I’m so sorry. Please excuse me.” Then I gave her a big, sweet smile. Not just any smile. I’m talking about the ones I usually reserve for new babies or special friends.
And I meant it.
We stared at each other for at least ten seconds. Then, lumbering around me, sneer intact, she pushed through the door.
When I came back out, she was still sitting in the little lime green car in front of the door. She was fidgeting with two small American flags—like the ones you wave at parades—that were pushed in the dashboard vase, and I got the feeling she was waiting for me to come out. I was right.
I looked at her, and her fleshy face broke into a smile. At first it was shaky, like a kid who’s riding her bike for the first time without training wheels. But then it turned into a genuine, honest-to-goodness smile. Raising her hand, she waved good-bye, and the little green car pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.
Sometimes it’s the everyday, ordinary living that’s the hardest.
While it’s easy to be kind to people we like and those who are like us, it’s harder when we have to make the effort to reach out to the exhausted in life and pull them to their feet by showing kindness with a smile. Sometimes its just easier to judge and be judged than to look for the best in each other.
But life’s too short to be unkind—to anyone. It’s an abuse of power and authority. Meanness is never an option for the Christ-follower; we should go out of our way to be kind. I remember reading somewhere that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
It’s true. And I’ve never been more aware of it then when I drove away from Chet’s Quik Stop that day.
“Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.” (I Thess. 5:15b The Message)
© 2011 Kathy Chapman Sharp
There’s a Home Goods store close to the Starbucks where I like to settle into the comfortable leather club chair and work while I sip on a decaf soy latte. Every once in a while, I’ll drive over there when I’m finished and walk through the store to see what bargains I can find on the clearance shelves. Of course, I know when I walk through the door I’m not going to spend more than the ten or twenty dollars I have tucked in my jeans pocket. Like I said, I’m there for the bargains — something pretty I can hug to my chest and feel good about while I’m telling Terry how much money I saved him.
But lately, God’s been teaching me something about my bargains. They don’t have a lot of lasting power. Most of them sit on the mantle or a side table somewhere until I find something prettier and they’re banished to the “bargain cabinet” in the family room that’s full of stuff that will eventually find its way to a donation bag or yard sale. It’s the treasures in my home that have the staying power. The objects that are full of heart and soul and speak of sacrifice and thoughtfulness. The objects that instantly remind me of places I’ve been or the people I love like crazy and those who love me back.
God whispered in my ear this morning that it’s the treasures that have a palpable heartbeat, carved deep with meaning that bring satisfaction to my soul. Next to these, my bargains appear pointless and trivial and I wonder why I bother to waste my time and money on them. He also reminded me that bargain shopping is the wrong approach to my spiritual life as well.
I’m so busted. God knows I don’t want to hold worthless spiritual victories to my chest, but sometimes I do. You know, the ones I can feel good about while reminding him just how much I’ve put myself out for him. And the truth is, they don’t really mean a thing. I knew it when I walked through the door, ready to spend only the paltry offering in my unmotivated, unenthusiastic heart. I knew it then, and I knew it when I set my miserable, meaningless spiritual bargain on his altar and turned my head away in shame.
It’s only when I go for broke – when I give him everything with complete abandonment – that I discover a spiritual treasure that speaks my name, reminding me of how much I love God, but more importantly, just how much more he loved me first. And that my friends, is no waste of time nor money.
” Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list.” Matthew 22: 37-38 (Message)
© 2011 Kathy Chapman Sharp
God’s timing is, as usual, just perfect. After two years of life interrupted, I just got a great report from the breast surgeon and oncologist in late Spring with orders not to come around for a year unless something out of the ordinary shows back up on my doorstep. No sooner had I finished my happy dance than God began to roll out his will for my immediate future like a red carpet. Inviting and bright, it beacons me to a place I’ve yearned for. It’s like sitting in a rainstorm after an unexpected and unplanned vacation in the desert.
After years of advising and helping others get published, I am finally working on a book project of my own! Earlier in the year a publisher approached me about writing book 2 in a series called, “Life’s Too Short.” I’ll be writing a collection of 70 short essays to young women on living life authentically and what’s important in the process. It’s slated to be on the shelves in April, so with a November 1 deadline breathing down my neck, it’s a sure bet I’ll be eating and sleeping “Life’s Too Short” for the next four months! After a recent meeting with my agent, Terry presented me with a new crock pot recipe book. I’m pretty sure that’s his way of saying he’ll be okay fishing his dinner out of the crock pot if I can just manage to throw the ingredients in there in the morning before getting immersed in my writing task for the day. Teamwork at it’s best!
So, as I begin writing today, I’d like to invite you along for the journey. Here’s where you come in …
In the context of your own life, how would you finish the sentence: “Life’s too short …?
I’m truly interested in hearing your perspectives as I write these chapters over the next few months, so jump right in. Wax poetic. Be opinionated. Impart witty repartee. Tell me how you really feel. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers, just life experiences that spill back into the true reality of living. Don’t be a stranger …