thinking theology

Archive for March, 2019

A Judgment called Grace

Love is the strongest force in the world. Like our persecution of dandelions, we can try to poison it, dig it out of cultures, mine it until it’s exhausted, misrepresent it as punishment or morality, and yet it continually resurrects as itself. In a very limited way, I would say that love is the eternal force that inspires freedom, that surpasses judgment, that has no knowledge of punishment or retribution. It is the core of Judaism that informed every parable of Jesus, that taught him how to be the Christ in the world, the physical manifestation of God’s grace. 

From Genesis on, we read stories about God’s love in creation. When the first humans are offered self-awareness, they seize it and can no longer remain in ignorant bliss. They come to share with the Divine the awareness of belonging and alienation, choice and power. Of course, Eden looks different for them. Have you ever tried to return to a place of memory? But in the story, the Holy One softens the blow of reality by making them clothes, comfort against their new life. 

This is the pattern of the story of the relationship between God and humanity. Humanity makes promises and breaks the promise. Humanity is offered justice, freedom, compassion as a lifestyle, as a place where the holy and the human can meet in mutual delight. Unfortunately, we are slow learners, socially, and return to violence and self-centred aggrandizement rather than the ways of peace. At each break, priestly voices offer cultic solutions, prophets cast warnings of how the road poorly chosen will lead to disaster to no avail. I don’t think God punishes anyone. I think we punish ourselves and blame God. 

blog picIn the story of the prodigal son, we see the archetypal split of two brothers, each seeking the meaning of life. One brother chooses the ways of self-indulgence; the other brother chooses the path of duty. The father, who is loving, forgiving, tolerant, and patient, loves them both. In a culture based on productivity and duty, the indulgent son should be punished. In a culture based on freedom without self-discipline, the older brother is perceived as unreasonable and judgemental. 

These two brothers are the poles between which we swing, duty and self, reward and punishment, forgiveness and retribution. It is so difficult for us to imagine a world in which there is no punishment, but instead processes of reconciliation and accountability. The father does not ask either brother to change but waits, rather, for them to become aware of the possibility of a different path.

What is wrong with our world? Just this: at some point we will have to give up pointing our fingers at each other. In the novel by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha*, we read:

“It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.” 

Imagine a world in which we begin with positive affirmation, with a willingness to listen rather than shout slogans. Imagine that we believe there is nothing that can separate us because we are family. 

Beyond all this, I hear the story of the prodigal son as the encounter of humanity’s doubt, fear, shame with the loving gift of grace, a free gift of healing and reconciliation, no strings or conditions attached. Another quote from Siddhartha:

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” 

The compassion of Jesus arises because he is not the divided son. He is the human who lives equally in the grace of God and the delight of life in this world. On the cross, he lifts up fear and faith, suffering and release. He lives in the garden, but with awareness of the precious nature of life, of relationship. He sees the holy within and around all life. 

As we come to the end of Lent, let us give ourselves the gift of recognizing the ways in which we are self-centred, the ways in which we are self-righteous, and the greater promise that we can be filled with grace. It is there, as close as our next breath, intimate, yearning for our healing, hopeful for our growth. Let us release blame of ourselves and others; let us release the fears that teach us to mistrust our neighbours near and far; let us feel the holiness rising within to set us free. 

 

* Footnote: In 1951, Herman Hesse published a novel called Siddhartha, based on the life of Gautama Buddhas. It is about a young man who begins a search for enlightenment, which leads him through spiritual exercises, decadent living, and finally enlightenment.

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Four Paths of Lent

Last week I was feeling weary from noting all the various encouragements for Lenten observation. Mostly, I think that late winter easing into spring is a time for quiet reflection, for spiritual regrouping, for taking time to make sure that we are equipped for the work of discipleship. At our church, we will have four stations to get us started. Here are some thoughts for meditation as you move through these stations in your imagination.

At the first, we are marked with ashes. Ashes remind us that from the conflagration at the birth of the universe, some of the bits of stardust became life on earth. We are connected to this universe, part of it forever. We share the biological markers that say we belong to this planet. And so, dust and ashes are the sign of belonging, of being part of the process of birth and transformation. Being marked by ashes means, for me, that I offer my life willingly in gratitude for being alive. Throughout Lent, we can whisper this mantra to ourselves: Child of this holy earth, I am called to rise in the light.

Another station to reflect at is the bowl of stones. We will place a stone in the bowl to show what we intend to leave behind. And there we place our self doubt, our regrets, our failures, because we intend to learn and move on. We will not be imprisoned by our past but release it for our liberation. Sometimes, we may have to carry the stone with us until we can see that this piece of a mountain is manageable for us because we are surrounded by Love. And so we say, I am made in love from stars and I can climb mountains in safety.

Next, we come to the bowl of earth and spring bulbs. We plant a bulb to remind ourselves that hope is trusting that new life comes in the dark, in mystery, unseen until it breaks open the ground. We plant for the future — always — modelling for others that nothing can happen without faith in some outcome, although it may be a surprise. In the morning we might say upon awakening: I open myself to the possibilities of this new day.

And finally, we come to our beginning, to the font and the waters of baptism, to the promises we have made about how we will follow Jesus. At the font we are reminded that we are part of the cloud of witnesses, witnesses to the conviction that our world can be peaceful, just, and healthy for all people. And we trust that in our midst is the Christ who showed us how to be human, how to experience that Holy one within, around, and before us. And so we say, in every moment, grace.