(RNS) Moments before I left Laguna Beach to drive to Long Beach one recent Friday afternoon, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved its stay on gay marriages, giving California county clerks permission to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time in more than five years.

Plaintiffs Paul Katami, left, and Jeff Zarillo, who argued against California’s Proposition 8, speak to the media Wednesday (June 26) after the Supreme Court rejected Prop 8 on legal grounds. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Plaintiffs Paul Katami, left, and Jeff Zarillo, who argued against California’s Proposition 8, speak to the media Wednesday (June 26) after the Supreme Court rejected Prop 8 on legal grounds. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

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By the time I reached the parking garage at the Long Beach Convention Center, where the United Church of Christ was holding the denomination’s national, biennial gathering, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, a gay couple from Burbank who were plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Prop. 8, were exchanging vows at Los Angeles City Hall.

Isn’t it extraordinary how quickly history changes course?

But then “quickly” is a matter of perspective. I dare say those who have been fighting for equal rights since the Stonewall riots in 1969 and before wouldn’t deem legal and cultural acceptance of homosexuality “quick.”

Still, whether long-in-coming or fast, change has arrived.

How epic change transpires also is a matter of perspective.

It seems to me that the driving catalyst behind the transformation of social and spiritual perspectives about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues has been relationships. When you actually know and love people who are gay it is much more difficult to uphold ideological opinions that would dismiss, judge or condemn them.

Relationships destroy hypotheticals.

It’s a point of view shared by many who were busy celebrating the Supreme Court decisions on Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act when I arrived at the UCC convention in late June.

Relationships are, at their very core, spiritual experiences. Years ago I read a book by British theologian John V. Taylor called “The Go-Between God.” In it, Taylor argues that the Spirit of God is as powerfully present between people as it is in people.

“Space has been created for people to have genuine encounters and to be engaged in actual relationships,” said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, the UCC’s executive and minister for LGBT concerns. “I think that’s what has really turned the tide. The degrees of separation of people who know someone who is gay have diminished almost to zero.”

A few years ago, when the first significant rumblings of change in attitudes and beliefs about homosexuality and gay marriage began in my community, evangelical Christians, I wondered aloud if the church might be on the cusp of a new era. A Third Great Awakening, if you will.

I now believe that such transformation in social mores regarding LGBT issues is merely a manifestation of a much more global spiritual shift.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the founding of his church, Willow Creek Community Church, the Rev. Bill Hybels told me that the dominant spiritual need of society had changed in the generation since the 1970s, when his megachurch began as a small congregation meeting in a movie theater.

“Thirty years ago, we argued about what was true,” Hybels said. “These days, people seem to be asking, ‘What’s real?'”

Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.

On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.

Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.

Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.

Grace is more than mere equality.

Grace is a gift available to all of us. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But we get it anyway. Abundantly. Audaciously. Without caveat or qualification.

That doesn’t make much sense to our human understanding of justice. It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair. And that’s precisely the point of grace.

Sometimes, by not just “accepting” but by loving without limits, we extend grace to one another. We give each other the space to be known, valued, and cherished for the beautiful and wondrously made people we inherently are.

When asked, “What is grace?” I often answer this way:

Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his baccalaureate address at Wesleyan University in 1964, famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Amen, we say. May it be so.

Might I humbly suggest that the long arc of history surely does bend toward justice and, perhaps, beyond it — toward Grace.



  1. “Grace is a gift available to all of us. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But we get it anyway. Abundantly. Audaciously. Without caveat or qualification”

    Available to all – yes. “We get it anyway” is the sticking point – How do we get it? There is a colossal difference between saving grace and what Wesley called “preventing grace.”

    God so loved – that whoever BELIEVES… Believing requires a transformed life

  2. ‘Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

    Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

    Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

    Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.’

    The Cost of Discipleship
    by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  3. Very good piece. I believe we are spiritually evolving and becoming more saturated by an ethics of grace. Of course, there is always a push back. Our spiritual evolution/transformation is three steps forward and two steps back.

    I was a little confused on your quote of Martin Luther King, Jr. on justice in the context of the way you describe as getting what you deserve. The restorative, redemptive justice, King is talking about, has grace at its center.

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