About 20 years ago I was wandering thru a second hand booksale in Busselton when I stumbled upon an autobiography that caught my eye. Manning Clark was a prominent Aussie historian and had written 3 volumes of work specifically about Australia. But it was the title of the book that sparked my interest – The Quest for Grace.
It had me intrigued. Who seeks ‘grace’ and what do they mean by that?
I opened the first couple of pages and inside the cover was a quote from Dosteovsky’s Brother’s Karamasov. It said:
‘I want to be there when we suddenly discover what its all been for.’
This is someone’s raw quest for making sense of life – more than that – finding grace – so I snapped it up. Two bucks well spent.
As I read I discovered Clark was the son of a Church of England clergyman. He grew up in a pastor’s home and spent much of his early life around churches. He knew the ‘scene’.
Unfortunately this was disastrous for him as he says he witnessed hollow, stony religion rather than the Jesus he sensed was inspiring and captivating. When speaking of his experience in church he said :
The Protestant churches have been captured by the Pharisees. Church of England worshippers appear so confident of their virtues, so smug, have such a cocksure air that I wonder if they believe the resurrection morning will occur on the Melbourne Cricket Ground where they will have reserved seats in the Member’s stand, sheltered from the heat of the sun if it happens in summer and the icy winds of the Antarctic if it happens in winter – yes and the member’s bar will be open should there be a delay.
This son of a clergyman sees the pharisaical religious spirit rather than the beauty of grace and he wants to run a mile. Of church leaders he writes,’they speak of religion as if it were a theorem in geometry’. The ‘walnut hearted people’ left him totally disinterested and as a result seeking ‘grace’ elsewhere.
What was both mildly amusing but also disturbing were the words Clark frequently used as synonyms for Christians. All through his book I read of ‘conformers – heart dimmers – life deniers – straighteners – God botherers – knee benders – petitioners – grovelers – miserable – frowners – smilers and as you can imagine none of them were compliments.
Clark grew up in the centre of a church community and was repulsed by it.
A tragedy… How can you be so close and yet be so distant?
Interestingly Jesus himself gets a fantastic rap from Clark – even if he does refer to him as the ‘Galilean Fisherman’. I guess he did go fishing, but he was generally thought of as a carpenter… Clark writes of teaching Rupert Murdoch in one of his Divinity classes (yes – he taught Divinity…) and of the approach he took to teaching. Clark focused on Jesus – the ‘Son of Man’, the earthy, rugged, beautiful Jesus who cared for the outcasts and had time for the sinners. He was inspired by Jesus and he claims that he may have even inspired Murdoch, however he writes that after that class he was asked to never teach Divinity again.
Ha… Once again Jesus meets religion and the sparks fly.
I grew up in church communities that had their own ‘pharisaical’ quirks – their own tight ‘in house’ laws that formed a way of sorting the insiders from the outsiders. I was enculturated into that tribe and I became one of them. I abided by the laws and I called out those who flaunted them. My competitive spirit meant that rather than seeing legalism for the nonsense it was, I was driven to being the best I could be in it. King of the pharisees… it was my unconscious goal because this was what I thought a ‘good Christian’ looked like.
In reality this was religion of the worst kind – the kind that seems plausible – that doesn’t seem that harmful – and even appears noble and good…
Every now and then in those teenage years I would get a sniff of Jesus – the real Jesus. A prophet would come to town – a John Smith or a Tony Campolo who would speak of a Jesus who walked in grace and who would call out religious behaviour and rebuke it.
In those moments I felt like I had been locked in a dark room and someone had opened a door letting the light in. I didn’t realise it was dark because my eyes had adjusted to dimness – it was all I had known – but once the door opened I began to realise what I was missing.
I wanted to find that light, and live in it – I hated who I had become (even if I was proud of it at the same time…) and (not surprisingly) this new direction brought me into conflict with the religious people – who were ironically leaders in the church…
I loved Jesus – and I don’t mean it in that lovey dovey sense that some of our songs seem to suggest. I loved him in that I saw what he was on about and I wanted in. And I wanted to lead other people to follow him, but I was so tightly scripted for the religious gig that it was hard to shake.
I am a recovering Pharisee… As such I react a little violently to any hints of Pharisaism and legalism. I know its destructive impact but I also know the wildly liberating experience of grace – the Jesus I wish I knew as a teenager…
Manning Clark’s story disturbs me because it is the simple story of a man seeking grace – who found only stony law. He concludes by saying ‘there have been moments of grace’ throughout his life, but he never really found what he was looking for.
May we be communities of extreme grace and may the man of ‘grace and truth’ be the one who lead and inspires us.
(This post was an excerpt from last Sunday’s teaching at Quinns Baptist. If you’d like to hear the rest then you can listen to it here.)