Grace and Bootstraps (#310)

On NPR’s Fresh Air this week, listeners were introduced to a new film being released entitled Moonlight. The film tells the story of a young man’s life growing up in a housing project in Miami. He endures bullying for being gay, but the greatest challenge he faces is growing up in a home where his mother is addicted to drugs. The film is based on playwright Tarell McCraney’s life. “There were times when we were without food and the lights got turned off often,” McCraney says. “If I did get money from an aunt or a grandmother or whoever, more often than not my mom would find a way to take it or talk me out of it, or sometimes the TV would disappear, or sometimes the furniture would disappear.” With no father in the picture, the local drug dealer became the nearest thing to a father figure McCraney had.

McCraney’s childhood resembles J. D. Vance’s childhood that he writes about in his book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s mother also suffered from drug-addiction and he talks about the numerous men who came in and out of his life as supposed father figures. Vance recalls growing up in Middletown, Ohio (right near my hometown) and often not knowing where the next meal would come from or where he would be sleeping on a particular night. Although he did have some stability from his grandparents, his grandmother was known to have taken out a pistol from time to time and shoot it at her husband in their kitchen. She claimed she never intended to harm him because she was too good of a shot. She missed shooting him on purpose.

Both McCraney and Vance have remarkable stories. Both excelled in spite of their childhoods. McCraney went on DePaul University’s theatre program and then Yale after that. In 2013, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.” Vance put himself through Ohio State University and then Yale Law School and now has a position with a major firm in San Francisco. Both young men were able to make it out of their difficult life circumstances and thrive.

With these two stories, it would be easy for us to conclude that if these two young men “made it,” then everyone who has had to endure similar childhoods should be able to do the same. It’s the old “bootstrap” argument, as in “they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” so what’s preventing everyone else from doing the same? I grant you it is theoretically possible for everyone to do it, after all, McCraney and Vance did it, but there are factors that we often ignore when such examples are trotted out as proof.

Life can be hard for all of us even when things go our way much of the time, even when we have had a supportive, nurturing home life growing up. Blaming the poor and others who have “two strikes against them” even before the enter kindergarten doesn’t help anyone. Yes, we should celebrate those like McCraney and Vance who have overcome so much in their lives to excel as they have. But we also need compassion for those who have not, who were not able to climb out of their difficult childhood circumstances.

A little grace is in order when we’re tempted to blame others for their lot in life.

+Scott

Tagged with:
 

When I was a young curate in Indianapolis in the early 1980s, a parishioner of mine was also a leading pediatrician at the Indiana Children’s Hospital. As I got to know him and his work, I was confronted by some significant things I hadn’t known before; things that had never occurred to me; that were out of my own experience or even my own imagination. In other words, I was just plain ignorant about some things even though I assumed at the time that I was well educated and knew just about everything there was worth knowing (ah youth!).

This pediatrician headed a panel of other doctors and medical professionals who had the awesome responsibility for discerning which gender to assign to babies brought to the Children’s Hospital. More often than probably anyone thinks, children are born with mixed genitalia, or confused genitalia, or none at all. My parishioner and his team had to weigh all the data they had in front of them and do their best through medical procedures and other measures to assign a gender to these babies. They were greatly committed to their work because they knew they were making decisions that would affect these children for the rest of their lives. Sometimes they got it right and sometimes they didn’t. And they often wouldn’t know whether or not they got it right until long after the children grew up.

Science and medicine have come a long way in the last 30 years or so, but much about human sexuality and gender identity is still unknown to us. It seems odd to many of us that someone who has the apparent biology of one gender might experience life inside their soul as the other gender. What seems even odder to me is that some other people would think that people who have this gender dilemma are doing it just for fun, or to be different, or just to flagrantly express themselves. No one would wish to bring such a dilemma on themselves knowing the external pressure and possible social ridicule they could face. The pull of gender identity in each of us is strong. Most often it’s clear and unambiguous, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s messy and confusing, like life itself sometimes is for all of us.

I’m certainly no expert on biology or medical science, but I’ve spent a life time reflecting theologically on the world around me using the teachings of Jesus and his Cross as my foundation. Often my reflection has led me to the completely obvious spiritual insight that life’s messy and not always as clear as we’d like. As St Paul says: “we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). And Jesus, no matter with whom he interacted: the rich young man, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who washed his feet with her tears, Jairus, Simon Peter, or even Judas Iscariot – Jesus always showed mercy. And he called his followers to show mercy as well, because, well, life’s messy.

I don’t know the answers to the questions that human sexuality and gender identity pose. I do know that “Restroom Laws” try to solve a problem that does not really exist. And I do know this as well: when Jesus was faced with the messiness of this world, he responded to it with such grace that not even the grave could contain him.

+Scott

 

I’ve always been fascinated by numbers. With today’s technology we can look back almost 14 billion years into the universe’s history and see the cosmic explosion of God’s creative Big Bang. It’s mind-boggling to think that anyone can even conceive of a number like 14 billion. Cosmic numbers are on my mind this Holy Week. But more mundane numbers are also crowding my brain. 68 teams started in the NCAA basketball tournament. After today there will only be 8.

When I was a teenager we sang along with Three Dog Night: One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do; two can be as bad as one: It’s the loneliest number since the number one. When my father caught me in some transgression as a child, which was quite often (I was not the most obedient of children), he used to say to me: I got your number, buddy! It was his way of saying I wasn’t fooling anybody but myself.

I have another number for you: umpteen. I didn’t know this, but it’s a real word according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It’s a blend of umpty (such and such) and -teen (as in thirteen). It’s first known use was in 1918, but I first heard it used when my father would say to me: “I told you umpteen times to _______.” Since I didn’t know how much umpteen was, it became a word of grace indicating my father wasn’t really keeping a precise score of what I had “left undone.” If he’d said: “I told you 237 times to _______” then that would’ve meant he was meticulously keeping an exact score of all my sins. As it was, umpteen left room for grace to take root. My father still “had my number,” but it was an inexact, graceful number: umpteen.

The events of Holy Week starkly remind us that God has “our number.” From Judas’s despicable betrayal of Jesus to Peter’s broken-hearted denial that he even knew Jesus; from Pilate’s effort to wash his hands of the whole affair to the religious leader’s blood-thirsty tenacity to see Jesus dead; from the disciples running away like rats from a sinking ship, to the faithful women who steadfastly refused to abandon Jesus as he was taken from the cross and buried: God indeed has our number.

If we numbered every human virtue and vice, my hunch is we’d find each one of them on display in the biblical characters of Holy Week. You see, the Bible not only reveals to us the truth about God, it also reveals to us the truth about ourselves. And that truth about humanity is completely unmasked and laid bare in the story of Holy Week. God has our number, all 7,411,382,569 of us.

But thanks be to God, God isn’t keeping score. In raising Jesus from the dead, God ended score keeping forever. That, however, doesn’t stop some from the seemingly pathological need to keep score, a way for us to be “one up” and pass judgment on others. But when God raised Jesus from the dead, God eliminated the need for scorekeeping or for even settling scores. God reduced the number down to one question for us: God either raised Jesus from the dead or God didn’t. Either God is in the business of bringing new life to humanity or God isn’t. Only one of those can be true.

+Scott

 

According to new research reported on NPR, people who are experts in a particular field tend to become rigid and unwilling to consider alternative points of view related to their area of study. This is even true for people who aren’t really experts at all, but were helped to feel they were by the study researchers. They, too, became more rigid in their thinking about their field of “expertise” and became less likely to consider different points of view from their own. This is related to what’s known as “belief perseverance,“ the tendency to stay with a particular belief even though the body of evidence suggests one should reconsider. It’s also related to “confirmation bias” when one only interprets, favors, or recalls information that supports one’s already held conviction.

When I read such studies, I usually ask myself if such conclusions ring true from my own life experience and in my observation of how others seem to behave. In this case, boy does it ever. You see, I like to think of myself as an expert on many things. Maybe you do, too? Whether it’s Anglican theology, baseball game management, the deficiencies of mid-century modern architecture, or the tragedy of Mark Richt’s firing as the head football coach at UGA, I have an “expert” opinion. When I’m honest with myself, however, I have to admit I’m not an expert on any of those subjects. But part of me wants to believe I am. It seems we’re wired for such a tendency. I do have beliefs and views about each of the examples I listed. In some, I have more learned beliefs than in others, but truth demands my honesty. I’m not an expert in any.

And that brings us to yet another mass shooting this week, this time in San Bernadino. I can’t understand why we as a society are doing nothing substantial to curb the wide availability of assault-style automatic weapons, which are clearly designed to kill lots of people quickly. It’s seems obvious to me what needs to be done: we need to get all these assault weapons out of the hands of all but the law enforcement community. Is it my “belief perseverance” that leads me to that conclusion? Do I have “confirmation bias” in that I’m failing to seriously consider alternative points of view from my own when it comes to this kind of gun violence? I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. I try to listen to opposing views on this subject, but none of them makes any sense to me.

This is all part of our human sinfulness. We want to believe that our views and beliefs are superior to others; that our judgment on things is more insightful. I know my own tendency when another person challenges some belief I hold. Rather than consistently exercising Benedictine obedentia and listening deeply to what they say, I sometimes ignore them as they speak and begin to formulate a rebuttal to their position. Such spiritually immature behavior is the norm for all of us unless we discipline ourselves to respond differently. I’m working on developing more spiritual discipline in all this.

Resting in the grace of Jesus gives us the courage for such disciplining of our immature reactivity. If we trust that God has reconciled the world through the cross of Christ, then when our beliefs or views are challenged, we don’t need to react to somehow prove that our convictions are superior to others. We don’t have to “prove” anything.

+Scott

 

“That’s not fair!” I said that a lot as a child when my older sister got to do something I didn’t get to do. It just didn’t seem right to me. My parents should have treated my sister and me the same. I heard the same things coming out of my own children’s mouths when they were young. Kelly and I would let one of our children do something and not the other two. That was “unfair!” It seems we’re all born with a built-in fairness barometer that determines from our perspective when life’s circumstances don’t go our way or appear to be fair to us.

We take this idea of fairness with us into adulthood. When we see someone cut in line outside a movie theatre, get preferential treatment at a busy restaurant, or get a social or economic benefit we think we deserve (or, possibly we think the other person does not deserve), we declare those situations to be “unfair.” Examples of this are programs like the SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as “food stamps”), animal grazingrights on government-owned lands, college admission standards, etc. We see some benefit or privilege going to someone else and we ask: “where’s mine? It’s not fair that they get that.”But fairness as a concept is sometimes trapped in the eyes of the beholder. It is often highly contextual and many times we do not know all the mitigating factors. Still, our fairness barometers go off because we presume that everyone should be treated equally all the time.

Fairness is not a Christian theological concept. In fact, our Christian faith is grounded on the central proposition that we are not treated fairly by God. Fairness would presume that we get what we deserve for our sins. It is out of God’s complete mercy that we don’t get what we deserve and are forgiven through the mediation of Jesus on the cross. So, we thank God that God is unfair, giving us a “benefit” that we have neither earned nor deserved. Grace, which is central to the Christian proclamation, is ultimate unfair deal.

This grace then should be incarnated in how we live with others. It should shape our leadership in the Church as well as how we make choices and act in relationship to others in the world. St Benedict in his Rule states that the abbot (the monastery’s leader) should treat all his monks differently, which may at times appear to be unfair. As Benedict writes: “One he must treat with mild goodness, another with reprimands, yet another with the power of persuasion, and thereby accommodate himself according to everyone’s nature and capacity of understanding, and thus adapt himself to the other, that he not hurt the flock entrusted to him.”

Notice how Benedict presumes the abbot is the one who must adapt in his relationships rather than the abbot assuming all those around him must adapt to him. Grace-filled living in the world is then about us adapting and changing our behavior toward others and not expecting them out of some cosmic or internal barometer of fairness to adapt to us. Put differently, grace insists that we be the “adults in the room,” that we not get sucked into insisting on fairness above all else, but rather recognize the deeper action of grace, which trumps fairness always.

 

The field of moral psychology endeavors to understand why people make moral choices and the rationale they use to justify their choices. One of moral psychology’s recurring findings is that we have a higher opinion of ourselves than we ought to have. Of course, St. Paul arrived at the same conclusion about human nature nearly 2000 years ago when he wrote that very same message to the Church in Rome (Romans 12:3).

Experiments and surveys have repeatedly shown that we believe we possess attributes that are better or more desirable than the average person. For example, we believe by a wide majority that we’re above average drivers. The same is true when we’re asked about a virtue such as honesty. A high percentage of us report that we’re more honest than the average person. Even folk in jail for theft report such superior honesty. High school students consistently judge themselves to be more popular than average. And nearly every state claims that their average student test scores are above the national average. Of course, since we know something about statistics, we know that such judgments about ourselves cannot be true.

Moral psychologists have termed this phenomenon The Lake Wobegon Effect. It’s named for the fictional town of Lake Wobegon from the radio program A Prairie Home Companion, where, according to host Garrison Keillor: “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

What these moral psychologists are documenting is as old as humanity. Our tradition names it as sin born from the cardinal sin of pride. Our creation story reminds us that Adam & Eve were quite clear that their judgment about a particular fruit in the Garden of Eden was superior to God’s judgment.

This truth about ourselves needs to be front and center when we spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yes, when sharing our faith with those who aren’t Christians we do need to have a “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” quality to it, because we do “know something they don’t know” when it comes to God’s grace in Jesus. But it’s how we share our faith with others that matters. It should be humble. We’re not morally superior to those outside the Christian faith. We may not even be morally above average.

So, from this humble stance, what is it we are to share?

I want to propose three Bible verses that will help remind us of how we should spread the Good News of Jesus.

The first verse is Isaiah 55:1: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and drink!

Notice how the Prophet Isaiah pronounces God’s word here. Everyone who thirsts is invited. All should come and drink and eat without money or price. God’s invitation to humanity is complete and without condition. Isaiah’s prophecy is a bold declaration of God’s intention, made perfect in Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, that Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross will draw all people to himself.

That means Jesus is doing the drawing. Our congregations then must be places where we’re trained for our role, not Jesus’ role. It may be a conversation you have in the living room at Columba House. It may be you comforting an exhausted Scout Leader after his troop meets one night at your church. It may be you listening to a co-worker over coffee about her current troubles. Whenever and wherever, we need to say to everyone in our communities: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come!”

The second verse is Isaiah 25:9: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”

Spreading the Good News involves us waiting for God to act. Our salvation, indeed the world’s salvation, isn’t our own doing. But our waiting should never be passive. It must be an active waiting, all the while recognizing that salvation is God’s action and God’s property, not ours.

If we remember that, then we’ll maintain a humble stance with those outside of our faith. Even though the Gospel is God’s bold declaration to the world, we should be compassionate and tender in how we share it, because we know many people have only received a false, toxic version of the Gospel.

Waiting for God to save is actually liberating. We’re free from playing the age-old game of who’s in and who’s out. We can collaborate with anyone, regardless of their faith, if they’re willing to do Gospel work with us in our communities.

If someone wants to partner with the Food for a Thousand Ministry at St Patrick’s, Albany or the community garden at the Oak Street Mission in Thomasville, we won’t worry if they don’t share our faith. We’ll feed hungry people with anyone. The Community Cares Café in Darien serves children whether or not they or their parents believe as we do. After all, we’re not on God’s “Program Committee.” We’re on God’s “Welcoming Committee.”

“Lo, it is God who saves us.” And we’ll share that Good News with anyone.

And the third and final verse is Matthew 28:19: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not a liturgical accident that each Sunday our deacons send us out with this short, powerful verb: “Go!” “Go” doesn’t mean, “stay.” “Go” doesn’t mean hang out inside the church walls until somebody shows up. And “Go” doesn’t mean being so hamstrung by political correctness that we refrain from sharing with others God’s forgiveness in Jesus. “Go” means, “Go!”  

Go into the communities of this diocese with a “humble boldness.” Go share good news with the poor. Go tell the spiritually blind that God wants to give them sight. Go speak to the spiritually thirsty and let them know how you’ve learned that Jesus is the Water of Life.

Go to everyone. Go to the NSA, the NRA, the NAACP, the Rotarians, the Elks Club, the Booster Club, the Garden Club, the Optimist’s Club, the Pessimist’s Club, just Go! Wherever God has placed you, Go!

When we actually do go, God does some amazing things.

  • The community youth group in McIntosh County decided to go and this last year we baptized five young people.
  • The Cornerstone Ministry in Augusta chose to go and now regularly has 35 or more youth participate. And some of those aren’t members of our churches. They’re being evangelized by our youth.
  • In the summer when we go to Lake Blackshear with the Good News, people respond. Because the people of Christ Church Cordele decided to go, their worship attendance has doubled in the last few years.

What might God do in our communities if we all decided to “go?” Because when we “go,” we discover God’s already there. When we go to the ends of the earth or just to the end of our block, we find Jesus already pitching his tent there.

My friends, I firmly believe that the future vitality of this Diocese is directly related to our collective willingness to “go.” Our vitality will only grow in direct proportion to the number of us who are willing to “go.” And, this going can’t be a clergy-centered movement. A few laity still think that since we pay many of our clergy to go, they themselves don’t have to go. But that’s not true. The clergy’s primary task is to equip the laity to be the ministers of the Gospel. As the great lay teacher & preacher Verna Dozier wrote: The layperson’s primary function is out there in the world.  And the wise Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote: Nine-tenths of the Church’s work in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.

That means when we “go,” we don’t go to church, we “go” to the people and places of our lives taking the Good News of Jesus with us. And if the Good News of Jesus saves us, it will save anybody and everybody.

I know I’ve gone a bit long here, but please stay with me for a few more minutes. I want to end on a personal note. Some of you know that I was diagnosed with cancer two months ago. I’m happy to report to you that I’m cancer free today. And I’m most thankful for all of your prayers. I felt each one of them.

The Diocesan Staff has been amazing, as usual, dealing with their already full responsibilities while also picking up after me, which is nearly an impossible task.

I also couldn’t do even one small thing as the Bishop of Georgia if it weren’t for Kelly, who puts up with me even as I am and loves me anyway, far beyond what I deserve.

There were upsides to my getting cancer. It’s been a great excuse for getting out of stuff. When someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, all I had to do was say: “You know, I’d love to, but I have cancer.” That worked every time.

The other upside is that it’s sharpened my mind and soul. It’s helped me see how often I’ve taken for granted the truly wonderful people and blessings that surround me.

And cancer has helped me get clear about what I want my life to stand for and how I want to spend the rest of my days on this earth, however long that is.

So, to quote that wonderful hymn by the Reverend James Cleveland:

Right now, I don’t feel no ways tired!

I’m ready to “go!” And I hope you’re ready to “go,” too.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters”

Lo, this is our God who has saved us.”

Go, make disciples”

Deacons, please stand now wherever you are.  Please help me dismiss all of us from this overly long address with one powerful verb. It begins with a G and it ends with an O. On the count of three: One, two, three – Go!

 

My friends and colleagues, Bob Gallagher & Michelle Heyne, are currently writing a series of excellent blog posts on clergy transitions in congregations. You can find them here. The basic premise on which their posts are based is that there’s a natural, unavoidable process as a new priest arrives and begins his ministry with the congregation. There are three stages: Honeymoon, Disappointment, and then, if given time, Realistic Love & Reasonable Expectations. Let me explore each of these stages a bit from my own perspective and experience, but please do read their wonderfully insightful posts.

During the Honeymoon, as one might expect, everything is great. People love their new priest. One might hear things like: “Her sermons are great. She’s so personable and accessible, etc.” For the priest, she might be saying: “What great people! I’m so thankful to be here, etc.” But this is really a time of inflated and unreasonable expectations by everyone. Just like in a marriage, the honeymoon inevitably comes to an end. If it’s falsely extended, then fantasy and self-delusion rule the day. It has to end so that a more realistic and mature relationship can be born in the future.

The next stage is Disappointment. It has a door that swings both ways. Eventually, people learn their new priest isn’t perfect. An incident occurs or an interaction happens and they’re disappointed. The spiritually mature will accept this because they know the priest is human and won’t always live up to their expectations, but the less spiritually mature will murmur, gripe, and gossip (often in the parking lot) about what’s lacking in the new priest. The priest also must face his own disappointment when he, in due course, realizes the parish isn’t all he hoped for, that the people aren’t everything he wanted them to be. This is a crucial time for all. If it can be navigated with perspective, grace, and forbearance, then the fruit produced in the future can be glorious.

The third stage is a time of Realistic Love & Reasonable Expectations where the parish comes to love the priest for who he is, warts and all, and form reasonable expectations for the leadership he brings. And for the priest, it’s a time where she can fully accept the “mixed-bag” her parishioners are (aren’t we all?) and can love them as they are and not as she fantasizes them to be. She can even love those less spiritually mature folk who can’t accept her humanity, failures, and faults. This can be a time of great fruitfulness in the parish. Most often this happens sometime in the third year of the priest’s tenure (although it may be somewhat earlier or later) and it can last many years as long as together they remain focused on the spiritual practices of grace and forbearance.

Of course, sometimes a priest and people never make it to stage three. And occasionally, the stages can be quite short. I once had a honeymoon of about 20 minutes (a long story). If the priest and people don’t work together through the first two stages, they can get stuck, resentment can set in, and often either can emotionally and/or spirituallycheck out” even while staying in place. They must commit to work through the Honeymoon and Disappointment to reap the fruit of the shared love that will come.

+Scott

 

Those of us who find ourselves living busy, over-scheduled lives sometimes have a hard time seeing the other souls around us who need a little grace in their lives. We can come to see random encounters with others as delays or distractions from our important daily schedules. But maybe God wants us to see that these delays and distractions with other souls is actually God calling us to follow Jesus to his Cross? We can become so goal-oriented and schedule-driven that we bulldoze our way through life and never notice those other souls around us.

Every day I deal with delays and distractions. Whenever I think I have my day well planned, I can almost guarantee God will send someone my way to mess up my schedule. I’m sure God enjoys this. I can hear God saying to St Peter: “Hey Pete, watch me mess up Scott’s iPhone calendar for today!” I’m never happy about this, but I’ve come to realize that it’s God’s way of reminding me that to God people are more important than schedules. And that means they better be more important to me.

A few Sundays ago as I left Augusta in the afternoon, I was riding on my spare tire due to a nail my regular tire had taken earlier. The writing on the side of the spare tire said: “Do Not Exceed 50 MPH!” That wouldn’t do. I had to get back to Savannah. I wouldn’t make it in time if I were limited to 50 MPH. Of course, being Sunday afternoon, there were no auto repair shops open. So I took a chance and pulled into an auto parts store. There I met Pedro. I told him I had a nail in my tire. He said they sold a patch kit for $9 and he got it for me. I thanked him and told him that normally I could do the repair myself, but I just had surgery and the doctor told me not to lift anything heavy. He said: “No problem.” He went out, got the flat tire out of my car, and repaired the nail damage right there in the store. He then got a brand new tire jack off the shelf, broke open the packaging, jacked up my car with it, and put the repaired tire back on. Oh my!

I went to the counter to pay for the patch kit and for Pedro’s work while he was putting the jack back in its packaging and returning it to the proper aisle. I told the young lady at the cash register that I was in a hurry and I asked her how much I owed. She said: “Just $9 for the patch kit. The rest was just Pedro being Pedro. And you know,” and she leaned across the counter and whispered, “He was just diagnosed with breast cancer and is having a tough time waiting for the surgery.” God did it yet again. Suddenly getting back to Savannah on time seemed the least important thing to do in my life.

I paid her and walked over to where Pedro was putting the jack back on the shelf. I said to him: “I have breast cancer, too. That was the surgery I told you about. It would be my privilege if you’d let me pray for you.” He just nodded. So right there in the aisle where the jacks were kept, we commenced praying. And we went on at some length. I prayed for him and then he prayed for me and then I prayed for him again. I hadn’t realized I was using my “church voice,” so when I looked around, everyone in the crowded store was watching us. I don’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Pedro’s last name was Emmanuel, which, as you know, means “God with us.”

+Scott

 

George Herbert & The Liberation of Grace (eCrozier #238)

Pride, as we know, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It celebrates the self and the self’s accomplishments over others and their accomplishments. In extreme form, pride places the self above God and what God’s accomplished in our creation and in our redemption in Jesus. Even so-called “self-help” can be a form of pride. Books published with the moniker “Christian self-help” are really no help (“Christian” and “self-help” in the same sentence should give us pause). Such books approach sin as if we can cure it by faithfully working harder. But there’s no self-cure for sin. Yet, we think we can balance our pride with a healthy dose of modesty, limiting ourselves to a humble satisfaction and only a diffident delight in who we are and what we’ve done. From my experience, such a balancing act ends up being self-delusional. In his poem, Jordan II, George Herbert tries to pen a poem celebrating God, but gives up when he realizes the object of the celebration is himself (“So did I weave my self into the sense”). Even our efforts that seem selfless can end up serving our self-aggrandizement. He writes:

When first my lines of heav’nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell. 

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.

 As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d;
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

Balance, in this way, isn’t at all helpful for me. The only help is my clear-eyed, full-hearted (Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights!) acknowledgment of the mixed bag sinner I am. Seeking a balance between selfishness and selflessness is a dead end (or between greed and generosity, or envy and admiration). What is helpful is an unfiltered honesty about myself, mixed bag sinner that I am. As Herbert concludes in Jordan II, God’s love for us is a “sweetnesse readie penn’d.” It’s the “onely” cure. All else will delude us into believing that we can strike a balance between our sinfulness (say 49% of the time) and a more faithful life (say 51% of the time). It’s Sisyphean. It’ll produce in us an all-encompassing exhaustion rather than set loose in us the liberation of grace.

+Scott

 

A woman and a man were walking down a busy, noisy city sidewalk when the woman suddenly stopped and said: “Did you hear that songbird singing?” The man said: “Are you crazy, who could hear a songbird singing with the sound of jackhammers, car horns, and people yelling all around us?” She looked around at the people walking passed them and nobody seemed to notice. She replied: “But I heard it clearly.” Then she reached in her purse, took out a handful of coins and dropped them on the pavement. Immediately, the passersby all stopped, got on their knees, and began picking up the coins. The woman turned to the man and said: “We hear what we learn to hear.”

And that brings us to the parables we have as this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Mark 4. I’ve heard numerous sermons on these two parables over the years. I’ve read many commentaries about what they mean. I have to conclude that most get it wrong. I did, too, for the longest time. After all, “we hear what we learn to hear.” Since most of us we’re raised in an American culture that worships the almighty self, we learn to hear things through that filter. When hearing something new, we filter it through our cultural shaping, which is individualistic and self-oriented. We can’t hear the proverbial songbird singing, because all we hear is the sound of coins clinking on the pavement.

So, when we read the Parable of the Growing Seed or the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we tend to place ourselves at the center of both parables. In the Growing Seed, its the seed of faith growing in us, which eventually grows into a full grain at the harvest (our resurrection). In the Mustard Seed, it’s smallest of all seeds growing in us, but even though it’s small, eventually it becomes a substantial tree by the time we’re resurrected. Notice how the self is at the center of both parables. The problem is: That’s not what Jesus says. Inconvenient that. Read both and you’ll hopefully hear what he’s saying.

Jesus says the seed is God’s Kingdom growing and not the seed of faith in us. In both parables, humanity isn’t in control. Yes, in the Growing Seed the sower scatters, but then she takes a nap, heads to the gym, does her business’ books, and then picks up the kids at carpool. All the while God’s Kingdom is growing, but she “knows not how” (4:27). And in the Mustard Seed, God’s Kingdom is this seed, which defies appearances and grows beyond expectations. We had no role in it becoming the “greatest of all shrubs.” We’re merely the blessed knuckleheads that get to nap in its shade (4:32).

But our culture has taught us that we should have a more prominent role. Don’t we have to toil, sweat, and from our cleverness and productivity produce the harvest of the Kingdom? It must depend on us because it’s all about us, isn’t it? Sure, go ahead and believe that. Yet, that’s not what Jesus says of the Kingdom, whose harvest comes about by God’s grace and not our mistaken merit, no matter how clever or productive we are. Our role is simply one of “praise and thanksgiving” as the Eucharist tells us. We’re the blessed knuckleheads that get invited into the shade of God’s restful grace. And there are lots of other knuckleheads out there who’d be amazed to learn that there’s a God who’d bring about such grace. Let’s show them what that looks like.

+Scott