Is grace something you can hear? Would you recognize it as a distinct sound if you heard it?
On Advent Sunday, churches all over the world began telling the story leading up to the birth of Jesus. At Wildwood, we began that journey by looking closely at an encounter between a powerless teenage girl in an obscure village and an angel who describes her as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).
This story is one marked by the distinct sound of grace. I believe in our consumeristic society, especially in the busyness of the holiday season, the sound of grace gets lost. I’m also convinced that many churches have become tone-deaf to the sound of grace in daily life. I know this is sometimes true for me, especially amid all the clamoring activity competing for our attention.
A Noisy Season
This is a noisy season, full of a cacophony of sounds. The sounds of department store mosh pits, as people lose their humanity to get the next hot item. The sounds of choirs rehearsing their big Christmas cantata finales. The sounds of cell phones dinging with tweets, likes, loves, and text messages in a hyperconnected society. The sounds of semi trucks barreling down highways to keep up with the internet delivery madness, striving to meet the demands for various products. The sounds of preachers bringing their best sermons before predominantly empty sanctuaries, waiting for the “Chreasters” to make their biannual appearances. Yet in all this melee of sound, we often forget the most important sound of all… the sound of grace.
More to Grace
Most people don’t think of grace as something you can typically hear. Grace is one of Christian peoples’ favorite words, but few talk about it as a sound. One obvious feature of our understanding of grace is the “unmerited favor” of God freely bestowed on broken humanity even though we don’t deserve it. The word grace is one of those words we must hold lightly, for just when we think we have a handle on it, a new dimension is revealed.
In my own Wesleyan tradition, we talk of grace in a relational sense. Grace is God reaching out to us in love, desiring to be in relationship with us. We consider grace to be the center of our lives and theology. Grace is a manifestation of God’s love for us, something we haven’t earned, but that is given freely. It’s rather important that we understand grace, considering that the Bible tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
So is this grace something we can actually hear? Does grace have a distinct sound?
The Greatest Sound
I believe the most important sound that was ever heard in the history of the universe was the sound of grace. Grace sounded off like never before, in the heartbeat of a fetus, in the virgin womb of the mother Mary, whom an angel called “full of grace.”
When we hear that tiny heartbeat we somehow hear the heartbeat of God! In God’s grace, God will not be separated from us, so God puts on flesh to get to us. In God’s refusal to be God without us, God becomes “Immanuel,” God with us. The story of God’s master plan of restoration begins in the smallness of an obscure woman’s womb in a hole-in-the-wall town called Nazareth. It’s hard to hear that tiny heartbeat among all the deafening clamor of this season, and so we remain deaf to God’s grace.
My daughter, Ariel, is pregnant with our first grandchild. Several weeks ago, we gathered in a little room to see the sonogram and hear the heartbeat for the first time. When we saw those images and heard that heartbeat, there was not a dry eye in the room.
This new edition to our family is a means of grace. In my daughter’s womb is a little boy, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. So for our family, it is a season of expectation. My wife is busy acquiring baby furniture for the coming visits. We are having naming wars, making space in our homes and in our hearts, and are full of anticipation of what this little guy will be like. We wonder how his coming will change our lives.
About 2,000 years ago, a young virgin named Mary was also listening to the heartbeat inside her womb. Planning and expecting. Anticipating what changes this child would bring. Unlike my grandson, and all other human beings ever born, this child was God-made-flesh. We long to re-celebrate his birth, but also wait expectantly for his return.
Unfortunately, most of the people in the neighborhoods where we live and worship don’t know this about God. They have never heard the sound of grace.
One of the Fresh Expressions we do, one called “Connect,” offers a safe place for children of a poverty-stricken neighborhood to eat, play, and hear introductory-level Bible stories. One of those children had no understanding of the Christmas story beyond the story of Santa Claus and his elves. He had no knowledge of Jesus and his birth 2,000 years ago. We have a culture so lost in the cacophony of sounds they can no longer hear the heartbeat that started it all.
Another Baby Was Born
Through the birthing process of cross, resurrection, and Pentecost, another baby was born. We call her the church. God has entrusted us, as the church, to be a manifestation of God’s flesh and blood in the world.
As the body of Christ, God has sent us to share the gentle sounds of grace in a deafening world. The church is supposed to be the heartbeat of God’s grace in our local communities. The coming, and soon coming again, of Jesus should shape our behavior. We excitedly join in God’s symphony of grace to reach out in love to the world.
The Sound of Grace
What does grace sound like? It sounds like a group of recovering alcoholics reciting the Lord’s prayer. It sounds like the sudden silence of a grumbling tummy now filled with the gift of a free meal. It sounds like the birds singing, signifying we have been given another day. It sounds like a group of inmates weeping and holding each other in a prison pod that just became a church because the Gospel was proclaimed.
It sounds like the knock on the door of the neighborhood shut-in. It sounds like the baptismal water pouring into the fount and then trickling over the hair and face of the child we baptized on Sunday. It sounds like the feet and uplifted voices of people from both sides of the tracks, marching together for racial peace. It sounds like the slow and rhythmic beating of a heart monitor as a friend sits in a posture of prayer and complete silence, saying a final goodbye.
Every time we reach out to another human being in love, we join the symphony of grace. Our lives become instruments in that great orchestra.
Yes, the sound of grace is everywhere. All around us. All the time. But we must drown out the madness around us to hear those gentle rhythms.
God wanted us to know his grace, so he let us hear it in the womb of Mary. God reaches us with grace through incarnate flesh. God calls his Church to be his heartbeat in the world, to put flesh on his grace—not to enshrine it in the walls of our sanctuaries, but to enflesh it in the communities where we live.
That’s what we do in the Fresh Expressions movement. We put the heartbeat of God close enough for people to hear it for the first time. In the cacophony of distracting sounds, we offer a sin-broken world grace that it can hear right in its neighborhood.
The mixed-economy model of the Fresh Expressions movement, allows us to maintain the missional outpost while reaching out in love to the community around us. God is quite serious about grace, so he put flesh on it. God placed the mission of incarnating his grace in the hands of his church. We are a channel of that grace, God reaching out in love to a sin-broken world.
It’s my prayer that in this noisy season we will sound the heartbeat of God’s grace in the communities where we live, work, and play.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.