Risky Grace

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No one could live this close to Philadelphia without overhearing numerous conversations about the Eagle’s newest signee. Michael Vick, to say the least, is a divisive character. Vick rose to stardom from humble beginnings in Newport News, Virginia (near my own hometown of Virginia Beach), starring on a Virginia Tech football team that received wide attention in the National Title Game against Florida State, and electrifying the NFL while playing for the Atlanta Falcons. Vick had everything. He also had a terrible hobby and some dubious acquaintances. When he was caught running a dogfighting ring from his home in Virginia, he instantly lost everything, as he was sentenced to two years in jail.

If you had asked anybody back then whether Vick would return to NFL football they might have laughed in your face. The chances of staying in football shape for that time was slim to none – not to mention the public relations nightmare that any team would face if they signed him. Michael Vick had made too many mistakes- ones that were too terrible in nature to warrant a chance at redemption. Putting your money on Vick returning to football was like setting it on fire and washing the ashes down the drain.

Or so it seemed. Vick now has been given a “second chance,” a shot at redemption. As a dog-lover (and hopefully a human-being with a heart) this gives me mixed feelings. What he did was terrible. Many well-meaning people have said “everyone deserves a second-chance.” But who says? By what criteria is a second-chance what someone like Vick “deserves.”  The truth of the matter is that he doesn’t “deserve” anything but the just consequences of his actions. In truth, none of us do.

But Vick has been given more than what he deserves and that is called grace – a gift. What I want to talk about is not whether this is a good thing or not. What I do want to point out is how this gift came about. Consider the following quote from Andy Reid, head coach of the Eagles.

“I’m a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. He’s got great people on his side; there isn’t a finer person than (Vick adviser) Tony Dungy. He’s proven he’s on the right track.”

It seems that the decisive factor in the story of Michael Vick’s return is the support that he has received from former Colts head-coach Tony Dungy. While Vick was in prison, Dungy began meeting with him and mentoring him. Think about this decision for a minute: the coach in the NFL with perhaps the most stalwart reputation visiting the former NFL player with perhaps the greatest blot on his reputation. When most people wouldn’t touch Vick with a ten-foot-pole, Tony Dungy risked his own reputation to reach out to a man who had made great mistakes. Why? Maybe it is because Dungy is a Christian and he worships the God who did the very same thing for us. Maybe it is because Dungy knows his own sin, and in the light of that knowledge he doesn’t judge, but looks for ways to demonstrate what grace truly is.

Grace is risky. Forgiveness requires sacrifice. Think about it. When someone has wronged us, we can either “settle the score” or “hold a grudge” or forgive. When we settle the score, we get revenge or “pay them back.” By getting back at them, we even out the ledger sheet between the two of us. We may have incurred a loss but we also made them incur a loss, and that feels like a gain. When we hold a grudge we do not settle the score, but we hold on to the ledger sheet for a later date, constantly placing the other person in our debt (whether they know it or not). When we forgive, however, we take the loss into ourselves and absorb it. The person is set free by our act of sacrifice. If someone buys a car from us and promises to pay us at a later date, but never does, we can “forgive” their debt but only at great cost to ourselves.

God, similarly, forgives us. But only at great cost to himself. God’s grace is risky. When Jesus walked the earth he had a stalwart reputation which he put on the line for the “sinners and tax collectors” and the “prostitutes.” Jesus identified himself with them so that by finding their identity in him, they may be redefined, redeemed. Of course it didn’t stop with his earthly associations. Jesus carried this attitude all the way to Calvary. On the cross Jesus, the sinless one, “became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And now, all of us whose identity is primarily in him (i.e. the church) are redeemed and redefined by his identification with us (“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” 2 Corinthians 5:17).

So back to Vick and Dungy. It remains to be seen whether Vick will enjoy success again in the NFL. It also remains to be seen whether Vick has truly changed, has truly left his dubious friends behind. Vick may disappoint. For my part, I hope that he doesn’t. I hope that he has changed and that he will have a positive impact on all those who may look to him as a role-model. But, that all remains to be seen. What can clearly be seen, however, is the risky grace of Tony Dungy, who is risking his own reputation to stand with someone who no one else will stand with. Tony Dungy is being Jesus Christ to Michael Vick.

Will we (the church that is) learn from him? Will we learn to stop being self righteous, sitting in judgment on those who have made mistakes? Will we learn that God may require us to risk our reputations to show the world what kind of God we serve? Will we stand by those who may not “deserve” a second chance, but who may be redeemed by one? May God give us the grace to be that risky.