I was young and early in my career, eager to prove myself and terrified of being perceived as being anything but in total control of my charge. I was not at all happy to be outside of the walls of the school … I did not want to be walking to church. …
In my time of fear and isolation I found great comfort in the stories told by, and the communities formed by disabled people. Now that we are all traversing the land usually reserved for people with disabilities my hope is that these voices can be a comfort and a light to guide the way for the general public. …
I felt the presence of God so much more at the Family Retreat than I had anywhere else in recent years. Seeing so many people of all abilities joining together to make a joyful noise was a powerful experience. The love for God in that room was so strong that it was almost overwhelming. It felt like a preview of heaven. …
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.
~ Frederick Buechner
Grace is a chameleon.
Wherever you see it, it takes on a different meaning, a different shape, another colour.
In the Christian religious tradition, it means “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”
In the context of being graceful it means “simple elegance or refinement of movement.”
In another sense, where you are graced by someone being near, it means to “do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one’s presence.” This captures the experience of belonging, where “the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
I can’t help but think that latter two definitions tell us more about the grace of God than the stiff doctrinal formulation. Ephesians 2:8-9 comes to mind, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Unlike almost every other context we find ourselves in, grace is not based on what we do, how we look, or how well we are able to fit in and be liked. In this way, God’s grace unearths a level playing field unlike any other.
For anyone who grew up in an Evangelical or charismatic Christian world, Canadian Brian Doerksen‘s songs (Refiner’s Fire, Come Now is the Time to Worship, I Lift My Eyes Up etc.) have shaped our expression of worship in powerful ways. His latest work revolves around the idea of “Level Ground,” and incorporates the worship band into the company of the congregation, eliminating the traditional barrier between leader and participant. The emphasis, then, turns to people sharing their “grace stories” about their experience of God’s work in their lives.
We cannot know how much the “Level Ground” direction is shaped by Doerksen’s life experiences as the father of Benjamin and Isaiah, both born with Fragile X syndrome, but Brian is no stranger to the challenges that come with disability.
It also important to note that it’s not primarily the verbal retelling of “grace stories” that serves as a powerful example for worship or liturgy leaders, but rather the de-emphasis on ability and the increased visibility of experience that comes from removing the band from the stage and letting people without special credentials or abilities be the focus. There are many ways to communicate, and anyone who can communicate (even through presence) tells a story. Being graced by someone’s presence can be a “grace story” more impactful than many formulaic recitations of spiritual renewal, but often service format itself becomes a barrier to true presence.
This is God’s work.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
~ Isaiah 40:3-5
In making level the rough ground, churches and communities are not only making way for God, but are making way for human beings to encounter one another in new and powerful ways – ways that aren’t determined by height, stature, ability or popularity. We are preparing for movement, for each person to express the graceful beauty of pursuing gifts and passions never thought possible. We are working towards belonging, where we recognize that we are graced by each person’s presence. Sometimes those whose presence inconveniences us in some way are the very people who challenge us to look beyond the grace that we extend, to the grace that we receive.
Ultimately, in the Christian context it is the unfathomable grace of God that is his glory, and it is for this purpose that the hills are made low. This must be accompanied, though by a simultaneous revelation of grace that extends to our neighbour. In this world, where beautiful and terrible things do happen, fear is driven out by love knowing that God is with us, and we are with one another.
For more information on Brian Doerksen’s work, check out his website (www.briandoerksen.com) and feel free to watch the preview video below.
If you live in Ontario, Brian has upcoming concerts in Oakville on June 14th at the Meeting House and in Kitchener on June 15th at the Christian Reformed Community Church.