Tuesday, July 18, 2017
What's so amazing. . .
Twenty-some years ago, Phillip Yancey was finishing up a manuscript he titled What's So Amazing About Grace, a book that would go onto sell millions. Yancey was--and still is--a member of the Chrysostom Society, a gathering of Christian writers who meet annually as friends and professionals to talk about just about anything having to do with writing and the world in which we all live and breathe and have our being. Members quickly become friends.
Annual meetings regularly feature individual members reading from new work. That year, Yancey read a chapter from What's So Amazing, the chapter which details his relationship Mel White, a Fuller grad who'd "come out," as people used to say back then, declared himself gay, openly so. Mel White himself was a writer, a ghost writer for evangelical super-stars including Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. He and Yancey were friends, a friendship put in jeopardy when White walked away from his wife and two children and defined himself as gay.
I was there when Yancey read that chapter, a new member at that meeting of the group. Yancey's reading was one of the most memorable moments in my own scrapbook of experiences with the Chrysostom Society, not because his writing was so elegant or lyrical, but because what he was saying, back then, was so controversial. Simply by talking about homosexuality, Phillip Yancey was walking into a chamber of horrors, not because he'd given Mel White a pass but because the subject of the chapter challenged the very thesis of the book--that grace was really and truly amazing. I remember Walt Wangerin giving his approval, but also drawing a deep breath as if to say Phillip would have to gird up his loins for a battle.
Wangerin spoke only after a deafening silence that grew, not because the members of the group were offended--not at all; because at that moment in time everyone in that circle of friends knew Phillip was playing with fire.
What's So Amazing About Grace went on to sell 15 million copies. That chapter--as difficult as it might have seemed when Yancey read it that night--must not have wounded too many souls. Of Yancey's many books, What So Amazing still ranks as a best-seller.
The responses that night came slowly. All agreed Yancey was right in telling the story of Mel White; all agreed that he'd handled it with, well, grace. Still, everyone knew how cobustable things were at the flash point of what we've now come to call LBGTW issues.
Then, as now, Eugene Peterson was the father-figure of the group, the oldest and, arguably, I guess, the wisest. If Gene Peterson isn't a saint, I'm not sure any human being can be. He's quiet, unassuming, and loving. Even in ordinary conversation, he chooses words as if life in every moment is a never-ending quest for truth. He smiles radiantly, has a blessed sense of humor. Even if you never read a word of from the shelf of his many books, it's impossible not to love Gene Peterson.
That night, just after Yancey read, I asked Gene what he thought about the issues at stake in the story of Mel White. He smiled, looked at me, waited, nodded his head and said, "I don't know what I think, but I can tell you that not a week goes by without someone from one side or the other begging me to get into the fight."
Last week, Gene Peterson got into the fight, and when he did he soon became a casualty. He told an interviewer from the Religious News Service that, if asked, he would marry a gay couple. In half a day, the war not only came to his home, it barged through the door and knocked him down.
At a meeting of the Chysostom Society just two months ago I was asked to say goodbye to Gene and Jan Peterson, who had announced they wouldn't be returning. His age is taking a toll. He told me when he couldn't come up with my name that not remembering was a symptom of his senility. He wasn't joking, and I wasn't surprised.
Eugene Peterson loves the Lord, loves His church, loves His people. "Being a good church means continuing to worship the Lord even though the young single mom behind you can't control her child," he once said, smiling. What he meant was that being a Christian means caring for those around you, a task that remains, in many ways, the most difficult calling of all.
A day after the interview ran, Christianity Today put a story on-line titled "Actually, Eugene Peterson Does Not Support Same-Sex Marriage," allowing evangelicals around the country to gather a collective sigh of relief since they didn't have to purge their libraries of Peterson's books.
A quarter-century ago, President Bill Clinton wasn't wrong when, in a private conversation with Phillip Yancey, he asked Phillip, "Why do Christians hate so much?" That question, Yancey says, is what pushed him to write What's So Amazing About Grace?"
But there was another reason, too, one that Yancey himself has said left a forever imprint on his heart and may well have prompted almost everything he has ever written: his memory of the day his pious parents and their church rejected the membership of a black couple because they were black.
It's a never-ending question, I guess, because it's somehow a never-ending story.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:06 AM