Sunday, October 15, 2017

when I grow in compassion and step away from denial and fear...

One of the multiple challenges of being a sacramental theologian in the Reformed tradition is grace. Not that grace itself is a challenge as much as is the magical thinking that has surrounded it for 500 years. In a manic drive to purify itself from all vestiges of medieval Roman Catholic Manichean practices - a spirituality that celebrated flagellation, severe fasting or an obsession with the seven corporeal acts of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, befriending the prisoner, burying the dead, and giving alms to the poor) - some Protestants insisted that "grace alone was salvific." That is, intimacy with God and eternal forgiveness could not be purchased through good works as trust alone was all that was necessary. Other Reformed believers rejected the time-tested spiritual practices of contemplation and Eucharist because these rituals and rites had become dominated by an elite caste of priests. And, of course, Luther's objection to buying forgiveness in advance through the purchase of indulgences gave shape and form to the anti-Catholic activity of the emerging Reformed tradition.

I have long likened many (but not all) of my Reformed and Reforming ancestors as theological adolescents: like teens of any era, they alone believed they held a monopoly upon the truth. And in throwing away the externals of Roman Catholic piety, the baby was discarded with the bath water. Many lost touch with the mystical tradition of prayer. Even more came to affirm what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace" - the notion that because God forgives everything and everyone, one could always ask for forgiveness, receive God's grace and then return to sin without impunity - pure magical thinking of the most vulgar type. 

Today my worship reflection explored why John's gospel tells us that the first thing Jesus did after his baptism and selection of disciples was to take his posse to a wedding banquet.  John insists that our final destination in life and life beyond life is a feast - not the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth - but rather a sacred and wonder filled wedding banquet. He also posits that while this is God's promise for us all, to realize it in the here and now requires some effort. As Tom Petty would have it: you HAVE to put on your party dress - and show up!  Karl Barth put it like this: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”

Jean Vanier writes: “In order for us to be men and women who share the new wine of Christ’s love with others we must first live into the truth of who we truly are for we cannot deny our wounds and grow in love, but rather must learn to welcome (our wounds) and discover the presence of God in the very places that cause us pain.” Our honesty - and prayer and trust in God's grace - allows the ordinary water of our lives to become holy and sacred wine, just as Jesus changed the ordinary water of ancient ritual into the fruit of the vine for the celebration. The challenge for many contemporary believers in the Reformed tradition is that they don't really believe they have to make an effort to embrace grace. The magical thinking and vulgarity of cheap grace is all too alive and well.

At worship's close, I was asked: "How do you know this is happening, the transformation within into holy wine?" I paused and then replied, "When you grow incrementally in compassion. It doesn't happen all at once, but it will never happen if we don't confront our darkness and invite God's grace to transform it." We waited silently for a few moments in the receiving line as that took up residence within. Then my friend nodded and said, "Yes, when I grow in compassion and step away from denial and fear." We embraced and knew that it was all about grace - and that there was nothing cheap about it. There were other meetings to attend today and then some hard and heart-breaking hospital visits, too.

But it was a good day - and the new wine increased.

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