Richard J. Mouw: The theological significance of grits

Like the grits at Waffle House, grace comes whether you ask for it or not.

My good friend David Jones, longtime ethics professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, sent me a small sack of grits for Christmas. These are the high quality kind -- white speckled grits from a mill in Georgia that was established in 1876.

The gift was an expression of friendship, but also a reminder of our shared interest in the theological significance of grits. David has been encouraging me to write a book about “grits and grace.”

Our grits dialogue got going when David heard me tell a story that I had heard in a homily by a Catholic priest from New Jersey. The priest had flown across the Mason-Dixon line for the first time, and on his first morning in a southern city he went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. After perusing the menu, he called a waitress to his table. “Miss,” he said, “what’s a grit?” Her reply: “Honey, they don’t come by themselves!”  The priest used that as a metaphor for the Christian life.  As Christians, we don’t “come by ourselves” -- by grace we are incorporated into a community, the Body of Christ.

A year or so after hearing me tell the story, David sent me another grits tale, this one a part of the lore among folks who work in the Waffle House chain. A guy goes into a Waffle House and orders a waffle accompanied by scrambled eggs and bacon. When the waitress brought the order to his table, there were also grits on the plate. “Miss, I did not order grits,” the man said. “Honey,” she replied, “you don’t order grits, it just comes!”

The theological lessons in those stories are clear to a couple of Calvinist theologians. It’s all about grace. There is nothing wrong about explicitly asking for grits when you order your food at a Waffle House. But whether you ask or not, “it just comes.”  God’s grace “just comes” to us -- not because we order it, but because we can count on grace as a sign of the faithfulness of the provider.

And the grace that we receive is not intended for an isolated “me and God” spirituality. We are called to a community that is meant to show forth the rule of God -- a peoplehood that serves as a sign of God’s larger purposes for the creation. “True grits”!

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.