There are still flowers
even when my heart is gray
The sun still shines on
Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.
This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.
“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV
Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?
I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.
I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.
Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.
Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.
Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.
What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:
- A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
- An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
- A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
- A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?
These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?
I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.
I have been working through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In particular, I have been working through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Nalamo and Translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. I was reading through the second chapter when I was struck by the words of Theophan the Recluse on grace. Theophan writes in the section entitled “The prayer of the mind in the heart”:
“But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary; to give this grace free scope to act. Grace receives free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…Grace builds up everything because grace is always present in believers.”
Of course, as a good United Methodist, I was immediately drawn to these words on grace. John Wesley penned and preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace” in 1739, which was 76 years before Bishop Theophan was born. In that sermon, John Wesley wrote the following:
“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all.
First, it is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver, nor on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from the free grace of God. They are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it all. Thus is his grace free in all, that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but to God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and with him freely giveth us all things.”
I would like to think that Wesley’s work might have had an influence on that of Bishop Theophan, but given the time of the Bishop’s life, even as a scholar, it would be unlikely that Bishop Theophan would have been heavily influenced by a reformer like John Wesley within the Anglican church.
Regardless, clearly both Bishop Theophan and John Wesley agreed on the power of grace, the presence of grace being available for all people, and the ability for that grace to build up everything and to draw us closer to God.
All of this being said, there’s a major difference in thought here. While Bishop Theophan believed that grace was free for all, he warns the people reading his work to take care not to stifle the spirit. He writes earlier in the same paragraph quoted before:
“He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately receives feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perseverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach of approach and reconciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused…”
There is a difference in understanding here. Although both John Wesley and Bishop Theophan believe in the power of grace, there seems to be a disconnect on how that grace can and will be applied. For Bishop Theophan, if there is a stifling of the grace of God, at some point there is a place where labor becomes necessary to achieve a reconnection to God’s mighty acts of grace.
For Wesley, while there is a strong connection to the concept of choice, the reality is that the good which is done by humans is done through God. Although our choices may lead to blessed events like the floodgates of grace being opened, the freedom of grace beginning to work fully within us, and a reshaping of ourselves into the further image of Christ, these are but streams of God’s grace, not the fountain of the grace itself. To put it another way, we might grow branches out from the trunk of who we are in Christ, but without the roots made in, through, and by God, we will achieve nothing.
I might be making too strong a point for the differentiation here, but let’s think about the difference. What if Wesley is correct that if God, putting a stumbling block between sinners and salvation, would be acting like a crocodile shedding tears “over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction?” To complete the quote “Free Grace” by John Wesley:
“To say that [God] did not intend to save all sinners is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’ If then you say he calls those who cannot come, those whom he knows to be unable to come, those whom he can make able to come but will not, how is it possible to describe greater insincerity?’ You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing and meaning another; as pretending the love which he had not. Him ‘in whose mouth was no guile’ you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity. Then especially, when drawing nigh the city, ‘he wept over it’, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together… and ye would not…’ Now if you say, ‘They would’, but ‘he would not,’ you represent him (which who could hear’) as weeping crocodile’s tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”
These words, like many of the words of John Wesley, are very strong. To be honest though, there’s some merit to what Wesley wrote. How could God say “I desire good for all” while setting such a high standard for a future with God after a stifling of that grace? Does not grace abound when one chooses to turn from sin?
Do we choose to continue in sin knowing this to be the case? I would say that would grieve the heart of anyone who loves God and is grateful for salvation, but I cannot believe that God would put a firm barrier that some could not overcome between their desire to find salvation and the achievement of that goal. Even if that warming of the spirit is simply an assurance of salvation, I cannot believe that God would slam that door so heavily.
How could one even desire to move past a place of futility if the feeling “towards God” described by Bishop Theophan is stifled and no longer free of charge? Would you turn to God for a path towards salvation if you had not desire in your heart to draw nearer? Would not such a journey become nearly impossible given the fact that the reward itself is something that can only be seen and felt by faith and not the eyes? A person might work at a job they hate because of a paycheck that comes regularly, but would they do the same job with the assurance that they would be paid when the job was complete? Would they do so if they did not even feel an iota of love or desire to be near and with the one who would bring that good into their life?
There is much to think about with these streams of grace. What do you believe about grace? Is it free to all? Is John Wesley’s desciption a grace which is too “cheap” in the words of Bonhoeffer? Is grace something else entirely? What are your thoughts?
I’m sitting and pondering as dinner settles itself down in my children’s tummies. One child is putting away laundry while another gets clean before putting on pajamas. The lawn has been mowed, the laundry is moved along, and I have a list of the things I need for my wife’s Mother’s Day Dinner tomorrow night. This is a good time for reflection.
I keep bringing myself back to Peter’s words in today’s scripture reading at church. I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the whole passage, but continue to find myself drawn to Peter’s words. Peter says in Acts 15:8-11: (NRSV)
“…God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
I keep thinking about how remarkable well Peter expresses that saving work of Jesus. When I was younger I kept hearing a theological concept that fits well here. The concept was that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
The ground is level because we all are equally blessed by Jesus Christ. Conceptually if nobody is righteous outside the grace of Jesus, then we are all equally blessed. There are neither super Christians nor subpar Christians. Instead, we are all equally blessed to be sisters and brothers of Christ through our adoption into God’s family.
This concept is a powerfully gracious concept, especially when so many people seem intent on pushing others out of the door of the community of God’s children. There are still many people who will happily share the rules and regulations of the yokes that they believe make people righteous centuries after the time of the Council in Acts 15. Christians have practically made an art form out of the practice of setting rules for ourselves and especially other people.
What would it look like if we all lived out of this perspective? What if we spent more time focusing on how the grace of Jesus Christ spreads into the lives of others than on whether or not they follow the rules our culture has placed upon us? What if we became a people who were as transformed by this grace as the man who spoke these words in Acts 15? What a world that would create…