Find the Grace Note

by | Jan 4, 2019 | Church Health, Theological Musings | 0 comments

I’m at a crossroads.
I’m not sure what to do with it either.

I thought I would try writing about it, to get it out of my head. I’ve tried writing this article four different ways already this morning, and none of them has seemed quite right.

I think I’m over-thinking it. (Did you notice that I used the word think twice in that short sentence? I must be in my head.) So, perhaps, if you’ll humour me, I’ll let the hamster continue running, and hopefully, my fingers will catch up.


The Holy Discontent.

Have you ever had the feeling that something is off with a situation? I’m not talking about a gut feeling that you don’t quite understand, either. I’m talking about a scenario where you know what’s off, you can put your finger on it, but you can’t quite bring yourself to speak it for fear of being wrong and offending people.

It feels like a holy discontent.
It’s the pinging in the depth of your being that says, “Sit up and take notice of me.”

Yeah, I’m there right now. Actually, I’ve been there for quite a while, but haven’t had the courage to do anything with it. For a few years now I have felt that something is off. I didn’t know what it was then. But for the last few months, I think I’ve put my finger on it. Until now, I haven’t wanted to speak it outside of the safe confines of a few people, either.

Here it is: I’m tired of hearing the same reductionistic “God is good, now work harder to receive grace” messages at most churches I set foot in.

I said it.
That wasn’t so hard, right?

It’s the truth, though. I am weary of hearing messages that reflect the brokenness of humanity yet offer little in the way of the grace of God.

Perhaps that’s a warning bell signaling my own pride.

Maybe it’s more a commentary on the type of churches I’ve set foot in.

Conceivably it’s indicative of my geographic location in the world and the status of the Church there.

It could also be an actual prompting to say and do something.

Given the years of thought and emotion that has gone into it, I’d lean towards the latter. But take what comes for what it’s worth. If you find it helpful, continue reading. If you don’t, please disregard it and thank you for reading to this point. I wish you every blessing.

But back to my holy discontent: I’m tired of hearing the same “God is good, now work harder to receive grace” messages at most churches I set foot in.

It’s come to the point where I’ve stopped following many pastors and churches on their social media outlets, too. (You know it’s bad when the Instagram unfollows happen…)

The message they are proclaiming, the good news they are peddling, has just become noise.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m captivated by the triune God. Christ is my King. He is my Lord. He’s not just my King and Lord, he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the Creator, Saviour, and Redeemer of all people and all things.

I’m just sick of how he’s packaged at church.

It’s like there’s this lovely wrapping paper, but the actual substance is missing.

It’s like we get an exterior of grace, but the substance of the gift is “now work harder”.

The grace note is missing.

All we’re receiving is shiny wrapping paper.


Shiny Wrapping Paper.

We’re only a few days from Christmas, and I’m sure many of us, at some point, opened up a gift.

There’s something expectant about seeing a beautifully decorated tree surrounded by gifts wrapped in shiny, bedazzled paper. Okay, maybe not so much as an adult (but who am I kidding, there really is), but as a child, there’s something magical about shiny packages with bows.

What’s inside?
Is that for me?
Look at how big that one is? That’s got to be a good one.

What’s even better, though, is when the wrapping paper comes off and the gift inside surpasses even the wrapping! That’s a beautiful moment for anyone. (Okay, not if you’re a 6-month old. The wrapping always wins out.)

Reality surpasses the expectation.

It’s a moment of pure joy for the gift-giver and the gift-receiver when this happens.

The most deflating thing, though, is when the wrapping paper comes off and the gift inside is…well…a little underwhelming. You know, the pet rock type of gift. You’d be happier with the paper because, at the very least, that’s useful for something. And, deep down you wonder, “How long do I need to hang on to this item to make as though I enjoyed it?”

Reality lags behind the expectation.

It’s deflating for the gift-giver and the gift-receiver when this happens.

The grace of the moment is lost. Unmerited favour is met with joyless movement toward the next, newer, and nicer thing.

I think that’s the Sunday after Christmas for most churches.
Who am I kidding, I’ve felt like it’s most Sundays for the last few years.


December 25.

We’re only a few weeks from Christmas, that day where the world received a gift beyond comparison. God himself in the flesh.

Exceedingly human.
Fully divine.
Entirely personal.

That day grace was made flesh.

Wrapped in, basically, nothing. Well, at the very least, it wasn’t shiny paper. It was more likely blood, guts, pain, worry, and a stench like a barnyard.

That doesn’t sound like such a good wrapping for a gift of immeasurable value, does it?

Not really.

And yet, in spite of a terrible wrapping job, this is a gift beyond measure. It is a gift for everyone.

And guess what?

That gift is simply there.

It’s there.


You can experience and enjoy the Divine God of the universe as much as you care to. It’s all around. It’s experienced in the Creation. It’s made personal in the flesh and bone birth of Jesus. It’s consummated in the restoration and renewal of all things that are to come.

The good news is that God keeps guaranteeing that will come. The good news is he keeps giving to push everything in that direction. The good news is he cares for everything and that includes you.


There is always enough of that love and care to go around. There is more than enough forgiveness to spare. There aren’t any strings attached to experiencing the joy of the universe. There isn’t a merit-based system of belonging. All things will be restored and renewed. It will happen. You and I can be freed from the old order of trying harder to achieve that end. Why? Because it’s already taken care of.

It’s called grace.
Freely given.
A soft, gentle, unstoppable torrent of all that is good.

It’s the very economy by which God exists.
It’s an unstoppable tidal wave of love, of goodness, and of rightness.
It’s the economy you participate in every day, simply by waking up.
It’s the currency we dole out in spades at Christmas and Easter.

It’s a currency that often dries up on December 26th and beyond.

It’s exchanged for a worthless currency of, “You’re not good enough, but thank heaven God is.” And then is circumvented by suggesting we are good enough, because the final imperative is to, “[in light of that] go and attempt to be worthy.”

But it doesn’t work that way.
It always has and always will start with grace Himself.

And I think our preaching, our teaching, and our embodiment (an incarnation, in its own way, perhaps?) of that message needs to radically shift.


The Paradigm Shift: It never starts with a problem, it always begins with Grace.

If I had to put my finger on the mechanics of it all, I would say that most preachers begin with a problem.

It goes something like this:
1. There’s some problem in the world that is so egregious we need to dissect it today.
2. There’s a similar problem that the Bible speaks about so many years ago.
3. Let’s see how the Bible resolves this issue in the past.
4. Here’s how you can resolve the issue today.
5. Because this book is about God, the polite morality we extracted from its pages is true.
6. This week, go work hard on this one thing.
7. P.S. God is so gracious that he gave us the tools, in this book, (oh, and his son Jesus) to work harder to improve.

To me, this sounds so hollow. It sounds so devoid of true grace. It makes God seem like a faucet that turns on once in a while to dispense just enough grace to help us get by.

But that’s not him.

He is grace. Plain and simple.

And I think when we approach the Scriptures, we need to start there. And, in light of his grace, we will see how all the ‘problems’ fall into line afterward.

I like to call it the grace note. It’s the sweet note that ties it all together. Some might say the bass.

This is a radical shift.
So let me illustrate.

To do that, I want to jump to the book of Mark. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, just do a quick Google search for “Mark 1 NIV”, or, better yet, head to and search for “Mark 1” there and select the New International Version (NIV) translation.)


The Grace Notes of Mark 1.

There are eight major divisions within Mark 1. (At least, in the NIV translation there are. So we’ll run with that.) Each of these divisions offers us an opportunity to start with grace or begin with a problem. I want to compare, for a few moments, what you might hear about the first four divisions and what, I think, the world needs far more than it typically hears.


John the Baptist Prepares the Way. (Mark 1:1-8)

Beginning with a Problem: We have a sin problem, folks. Jesus is coming, but you and I are great sinners, so we need to repent, be baptized, and we will be forgiven by God.

The Take-Away: work harder and confess your sins. Then you will experience forgiveness and grace.

Truthfully, you can’t really argue with that. Confession of sin and repentance are holy experiences. They are divine experiences. They allow us to acknowledge our standing before a good, holy God. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

But is that really the starting point of the story? Is it really the entirety of what Mark wanted us to know? Is it all that God wants us to know?

I don’t think so. I think it needs a radical shift to awaken us to more.
It needs to start with grace, and then we will experience the grace note.

Beginning with Grace: a King is coming, and this is Good News. He is a king of immense standing and power. A divine king, an expected king, a rescuer king. And guess, what: he will bestow his very essence upon you, and all of this Creation.

The Grace Note: brace yourself for the lavish richness of a good, personal, and divine king. He lives and reigns, right now.

Do you see the difference? Do you feel the shift? It’s so important. The problem will always be there, and most people are aware of it. But the grace note needs to ring out.

Start with grace, find the grace note. And, perhaps surprisingly, the problems seem to give way to the abundance of grace.

Let’s try another.


The Baptism and Testing of Jesus. (Mark 1:9-13)

Beginning with a Problem: Temptation is going to come, and your baptism isn’t enough to keep you from that. So be ready to stand firm in your faith, because the devil is around every corner. In fact, he may come at you harder because you are now baptized and have a target on your back. If you have enough faith–faith like Jesus–then perhaps God will protect you.

The Take-Away: watch out! Faith is a battle and you need to try and be perfect at it like Jesus was. That’s how you avoid giving into temptation. If you do it well enough, then God just might send “heavenly” assistance.

Again, you can’t really argue with much of that when you start with a problem. Of course, we will face temptation. Of course, life isn’t sunshine and lollipops. Of course, Jesus is righteous and God does send “heavenly” assistance. Tell me something I don’t know!

When you start with the problem, though, it seems that the solution raises more questions than anything else. It seems to breed a scared, work harder type of faith.

So where’s the grace note? Try harder to receive God’s benevolence?

That doesn’t sound gracious. It sounds like work that leads to nowhere.
Let’s begin with grace instead.

Beginning with Grace: the veil between Heaven and Earth is being torn wide open because of this good, divine King. The two “places” have met. Heaven and Earth are closer in a new and meaningful way, and God is pleased because of that. And get this, the Spirit has invaded! No matter the circumstance, this is an action that cannot be undone.

The Grace Note: God is here. With you. Always. And he is pleased that it is so.

Can you feel the goodness? Can you feel the divine grace being dispensed recklessly, liberally, and joyfully?

When we start with a problem, we often arrive at a mediocre solution. A solution that has only a teaspoon of grace that’s buried. Start with grace, and you can hear the sweetest of sounds.

I’m having some fun…let’s try another.


Jesus Announces the Good News. (Mark 1:14-15)

Beginning with a Problem: here comes the sin problem again. You and I need to repent because Jesus is here. But not only that, we need to have enough belief to ensure we have repented well enough.

The Take-Away: repent, repent, repent. It’s the only way you can experience the Kingdom.

Once again, it’s a matter of doing enough, of being enough, and acting with enough fervor required to experience God’s goodness. While it is true, repentance is good and necessary (as is belief), when we start with the problem we arise at a cheap solution: rely on yourself to experience God.

But I don’t think the story starts that way.
I think it starts with a different move.
A move made by God himself.

Beginning with Grace: the King doesn’t sit and rule from one location. He moves around. He heads to places that others would overlook. (Let’s face it, Galilee isn’t exactly Rome…) And when he moves, he brings goodness, he brings peace, and he brings himself. He is personal, and he has a gift for anyone and everyone: it’s his goodness and justice, his rule and reign.

The Grace Note: the Kingdom of God is here, right now, and the King himself is bringing it wherever he goes.

Can you sense it? There’s an electricity in the air when the King comes. And where he is it is good.

Grace needs to be the starting point. The problem only breeds fear, the good King brings peace.

Let’s go again. Just one more. I can’t resist.


Jesus Calls His First Disciples. (Mark 1:16-20)

Beginning with a Problem: Jesus is going to call you to follow him. You have a choice to make when Jesus comes calling. You need to be ready to give up your work and do his bidding, or you can stay behind like those other schlubs. Do you stay doing what you’re doing or do you drop that and follow him?

The Take-Away: to follow Jesus requires that you leave everything behind. Only then can you be considered a full-on follower of Jesus. (It also means you are more pious than the other people who stay behind in comfort.) So stop doing your things and do the things of God.

Let me begin by saying that it’s not a wrong or bad sentiment. Jesus himself tells us that we are to forsake all else to follow him. But that really seems to be suggesting that we–like him–have to choose to empty ourselves of, well, ourselves. It means our work is restorative, not self-serving. It means our character is gracious, not selfish. That seems to be a more appropriate understanding of things.

When we start with a problem like this, though, it seems to suggest that the people who get up to follow Jesus are superior to those who stay in their boats. But don’t people need fish to eat? It can’t be that only one type of work (or calling, as we love to say in the Church) is superior to another.

So what gives?
See, when you start with a problem, most thoughtful people will have a million and one questions that arise. Why? Because the solutions are, usually, not that good.

So why not try beginning with grace?
Okay, maybe I will! (That was tongue-in-cheek by the way.)

Beginning with Grace: the King is a first mover in welcoming people to his Kingdom. Moreover, when he sees things are out of order (e.g., someone expending vital resources doing something they aren’t meant to be doing) he invites them to make a change. “You’re a fisherman? I think you’d be better at this, want to try? No, no, not you guys…we need you to fish. It’s vital.”

The Grace Note: you are a vital participant in what the King is doing. He wants you to be a part of it. Never forget that your value is nothing short of essential.

Can you hear that?

It sounds peaceful but feels as though it’s building to a grand crescendo.
It carries a weight that feels freeing and light.
It captivates the imagination all the while causing us to think, feel, and do.

When you start with the grace, you just might experience the divine.


Why Not Try Finding the Grace Note for Yourself?

You’ll notice that I went through only four of the eight subdivisions of the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark.

It was intentional. In the first place, I didn’t want this article to keep growing and growing. But, in the second place, I wanted to give you the chance to continue the exercise.

In fact, I’d love for you to try and follow the template I laid out in this article.

Read the passage and start by identifying a problem. Once you’ve done that, distill a solution and take-away. Next, repeat that process, but start with grace. Look for the grace. Don’t look for the work harder solution, look for the God-sized, tidal wave of grace. Lastly, write the grace note. Let yourself experience the sweetest of sounds.

Not only that, let the sounds ring out. I’d love for you to leave a grace note for everyone to experience. You can do that by commenting below.

Let’s make 2019 a year where the grace notes ring out pure and simple.



Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

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