Mary, Full of Grace

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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In 1982, when I was a sophomore at Baylor University, Tony Campolo spoke at a state-wide gathering of Christian college students. By the end of his sermon, provincial scales had fallen from my eyes and I saw my life with a more global perspective.

I was rich, though I had never known it. All around the world people lived in dire poverty, while the money I spent on a night out with my girlfriend could feed a poor family for a month. The message was meant to convict us, and I definitely got the message. I left with a vague sense that something was wrong with my life. But I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

I was suddenly suspicious of our culture of consumption, but I was completely enmeshed in that culture. I knew no other way to live. Within a few years I graduated from college, went to seminary, got married, bought a house, and had children. None of those things seemed bad, in themselves, but together they bound me to this American life. I felt trapped and guilty.

In time those feelings of guilt gave birth to an unexpected grandiosity. In my mind, our culture was warped more than all other cultures. We were the rich and powerful people who caused most of the problems in the world. But even as I apologized for my culture, I was elevating it to a place of high importance. Strangely enough, I also felt it would be a good thing if everyone in the world shared in our material blessings. Somehow I never saw the contradiction in these two points of view.

I had grace for other people but none for myself. When I thought of Jesus and poor people, I imagined him accepting them, forgiving them, and loving them. When I thought about Jesus and me, I could only imagine him being disappointed at best and probably angry.

Then I met a woman named Mary, who was from a lower caste family in India. She was in San Antonio for a couple of years, raising money for an orphanage. I had the luxury of a long conversation with her one day. We worked our way through the cautious, early stages of friendship and reached a place where we could talk about issues of substance. The topic turned to the differences in our cultures.

Mary lives in one of those poor Indian neighborhoods that are marked by teeming throngs of people. As a rather introverted person, even the thought of such crowded conditions frightens me. I was surprised to find that Mary missed the crowds of people. She was horrified by how lonely and isolated life seems in suburban America.

“I look out a window and I don’t see even one person walking by. An hour could go by and I still might not see anyone. I miss our home in India, which is filled with family and children and neighbors coming in and out of the door. It seems so sad to me that people here have to knock and wait to be invited inside.”

Not only was Mary uninterested in having a suburban American life, she was repelled by it and couldn’t wait to get home. Why was this a surprise to me?

As the conversation moved to its close, Mary told me something that changed my outlook on life as profoundly as that sermon changed it so many years ago.

“Dearest brother Gordon, I want you to know how often we pray for our American Christian friends. It is SO HARD for you here. You are surrounded by such wealth. It is hard for you to understand how you must rely on God. It is a miraculous gift for you to have such a strong faith in this land of plenty.”

It was as if she slipped my soul out of my chest and rocked it in her arms like a baby. I put my chin in my hand and smiled. I wished she would never stop speaking.

“We are all trapped in our lives of sin,” she said. “My father grew up on a hillside with the Banjara people. They had no water and no sewage. When he moved our family into a tiny house in the city, he and my mother were thrilled that the water well was only a block away. I grew up with that luxury. I could never go back and live the way he lived in the village. Neither could you survive in my neighborhood. We are all children of God, hopelessly caught in our cultures. Thanks be to God’s grace, that covers all of our sins.”

I felt the strangest sense of warmth spreading over me. For the first time since 1982, I felt at peace about my own culture. I still believe that we are terribly materialistic and need constant vigilance to make sure that we haven’t made a god out of our possessions and luxuries.

But if Mary could have such grace and love for me, surely Jesus could love me too.

Image By Walter Callens. Used with permission via Flickr. Post by Gordon Atkinson.