I’ve been in Birmingham Alabama over the weekend attending Mockingbird Ministries “Grace, Rest, and the end of Scorekeeping” fall conference. I have to say, it was wonderful! It was great to be with so many likeminded people and to be challenged to go deeper in my understanding and practice of grace. I met some great people, including a Gentle Giant fan (the greatest progressive rock band of all time). I love Mockingbird Ministries and what they are trying to do, and I felt very much that I was among kindred spirits and that God is truly at work with something very big here.
The major theme of the conference was the folly of scorekeeping. The main speaker, Paul Walker, pressed this home in a series of talks. The idea is that we constantly measure ourselves, our success, our failure, our performance, everything. We keep score on those around us as well. Even pastors count up their attendance, the giving, the amount of change that seems to be going on with people, all kinds of things, at the same time they preach beautiful messages about grace. We measure our worth as parents by looking at the success of our children. We measure our worth or lack of it by our weight and lack of “buff-ness” – children learn this from watching movies and cartoons from the earliest age. All heroes look unbelievably athletic. Almost all movie stars and even cartoon characters look like super models. We begin to believe we are not legitimate real people until we look perfect. Even if we are at some ideal weight and are reasonably fit, at what point do we declare that we have achieved our ideal look? Most marriages operate on a conditional covenental basis which keeps a ledger of rights and wrongs performed and rarely venture into kindnesses that are not earned or deserved.
These may all be old memes hashed over a thousand times by every preacher under the sun, but they are nevertheless profoundly true. According to Paul Walker, the theological term for this way of living is called “justification by works.” When we are in a battle with the law, the law always wins, because no matter how long we persevere, we only need to mess up on one little point and we have lost. Whatever form of law or standard of success we adhere to, it demands endless perfection.
As is typical of Mockingbird Ministries, we saw all kinds of TV movie clips, popular songs, and portions of highbrow poetry and such to illustrate this idea. One of my favorites was this Onion article about Kanye West:
It’s funny because it’s true. At what magic point does the scorekeeping end, at what point do we declare victory? As someone pointed out, Nolan Ryan the great Rangers pitcher, said, “You’re only as good as your last game.” PBS’ slogan is incredibly blunt: “Be More”. Our hunger for a better score is completely insatiable. Even when we have success, we are caught in the same scorekeeping grid, because praise and condemnation are two sides of the same coin.
One of the more piercing insights was that we view God as the ultimate scorekeeper. Take the sermon on the mount; how are we doing on these points:
- don’t worry about tomorrow
- consider others as better than yourself
- love your neighbor (your enemy!) as yourself
- don’t lust, even secretly
The answer to the folly of scorekeeping is Christ. Christ is the end of scorekeeping. Christ is the end of the law. There are only two religions in the world – grace and law. Either we live in a way to achieve significance and the favor of God, or we receive significance as a completely free gift. The two religions are incompatible. The one is of heaven, the other is of hell. As one of the speakers said, grace is like watching the globetrotters – no one cares about the score and everyone is having a great time.
David Browder gave us a very powerful image, that sin is a condition, not a transgression. It is more like a brain hemorrhage than a nose bleed. The nose bleed is immediately visible, and perhaps dramatic, but not very serious. The brain hemorrhage is not visible, but can actually kill you. I liked that. He also showed some kind of crazy video clip from an Orson Welles movie of a Franz Kafka novel. I confess, I didn’t get it. At all. I think it had Portugese sub-titles.
David Zahl talked a lot about self-justification, one of my favorite subjects ( for example, hell and grace). He used a LOT of fantastic TV clips, from Seinfeld and also readings from a book called “Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” It really is amazing when you start looking around, even in what you might think are vapid sitcoms, how much insight they have into all aspects of the gospel. The consequences, as shown in the “Mistakes” book, can be tragic. Everyone is really dying for grace, just screaming for it. The whole world is preaching the gospel for us, and I think that is David Zahl’s powerful idea. I talked to him some about it and he is a wonderful and approachable man with a great insight. I think it is a great thing to see the church begin to turn away from its combativeness with pop culture to acknowledge that it has success and persuasive power with people and that there is a lot of very useful truth in unlikely places.
I think the thing that has set me to thinking more than any other content in the conference was Paul Walker’s session on how the end of scorekeeping, the entry into grace, involves death. Finally, we must come to the end of ourselves, and give up our efforts to self-justify. We let go of our autonomy. We die. He had one eminently quotable zinger after another, such as these:
“Jesus came not to improve the improvable, but to raise the dead.”
“When you admit you are dead, then you will stop balking at grace.”
“Grace travels outside of karma, to a place beyond deserving.”
He is a clear and powerful speaker, I was seriously impressed by Paul Walker. Praise God for him. I was watching for sermon technique as much as for content with him.
I also have to say that David Zahl’s father, Paul Zahl, was quite a presence at the conference. He has a podcast where he quotes all kinds of movies and TV shows and obscure literature and poetry and more in illustration of his points, which are all in defense of grace. He just constantly thinks this way, even in person, and it is amazing. I happened to be in a wonderful old dank used book store in Birmingham which was stuffed to the extreme corners with books and doodads. He popped in while I was there, and nothing could have been more entertaining than listening to him go excitedly through the store choosing things and talking about them. Clearly used book stores are his favorite places. I really love that guy.
One of the great things about the Mockingbird conferences is that there are big crowds of people, old and young, ministers and lay people, coats and ties with sneakers and interesting hair, all united by a love of grace. It is just fantastic. I was blessed and privileged to have attended, and I encourage all of my readers to try to clear their schedule and save up their shekels and make the scene next time. Hint Hint we need a West Coast event, maybe somewhere between Seattle and Vancouver. So, for the record, I loved it. I plan to post some more reflections on some of the issues raised at the conference, especially as concerns autonomy and grace, and some other things, but the main thing I want to say first is that it was wonderful and I’d really like to see this increase. Mockingbird is singing the song of radical grace to this generation, and it felt good to be a part of it.