Monday, June 30, 2014

The Holy-Making Gift

Today’s simple, but beautiful, Collect in the Lutheran Book of Worship prays: “O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another...” What can be the driving force, the motivation which leads you and me either to begin, to begin anew, or to continue to live the life which we call “Christian life”? It’s what the Collect and our Christian tradition calls grace.
The word grace can have lots of meanings and understandings. We speak of “grace” before meals. We point to the style and “grace” of an ice-skater or a ballet dancer. When special guests come, we set a table “graced” with fine linen, elegant china, and exquisite crystal. We even speak of the “grace” of a happy death.
I may or may not have shared this story with you before, but it bears sharing again. On Christmas, 1977, when my daughter, Nicole, was seven years old, she came to me with a small, taped-up envelope as we were opening our gifts. From the hapless care with which she’d wrapped it, and the solemn way in which she presented it -- with all of a 1st grader’s formality! -- I knew that it was something very special. On a small card, a familiar scrawl had written: “Dad, I know that this is a very small thing for a gift but it is the only rare and beatyfull [thing] I could find. I hope you like it. Sincearely, Nicole.” Enclosed in the card was a large, chipped rhinestone. That was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because the rhinestone was a symbol for the really rare and beautiful gift: the gift of herself. What I experienced in receiving that child’s gift is about as close as I can come, humanly speaking, to describing what God’s gift of grace is like.
The Book of Common Prayer (p. 858) says that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”  

God’s favor”:  When you’re a favorite or when someone does you a favor, it’s because you’re special; in fact, because you’re unique. You mean something. You’re important to the other person. And the favor is freely given. The giver consciously chooses to give it to you. A mature person doesn’t give favors indiscriminately or routinely. Favor is reserved for a special someone, on a rare and singular occasion. Grace is God’s favoring you and me: except that it’s not something. It’s God’s very self, God Who is Amazing Love, and that is given to you and me forever at creation, if we choose, in the very person and nature who you and I are.
Towards us, unearned and undeserved”: St. Paul has a passage in Ephesians 2 (5-10), and upon reading it one morning in the study hall my first year in college, I broke into tears at the power of its message: “Even though we were dead in our sins, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God had for us, gave us life together with Christ -- it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved...Thus God shows for all time the tremendous generosity of the grace and kindness God has expressed towards us in Christ Jesus. It was nothing you could or did achieve: it was God’s gift...which saved you. No one can pride oneself on earning the love of God. The fact is that what we are, we owe to the hand of God upon us…” “Unearned”, “undeserved”. We can each easily recall just the foolish things we’ve done in the past, even in the recent past: the careless mistakes, the dumb things we all do without using our God-given reason -- not to mention our acts of willful and deliberate selfishness. Yet St. Paul assures us that “though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God that God’s grace is wider and deeper still!” In today’s Epistle (Romans 6:12-23), Paul gives thanks to God “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart...” “Obedient” here, from its Latin root, means that we’ve not just heard God, but that we’re really listening, from the depths of our being.
The description of grace I mentioned earlier goes on to say that God’s favor “forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” Remember the phrase in St. Luke’s account of the Gospel (17:21) where he says: “The reign of God is within you”? Well, that’s what being in grace means: God in Jesus is present within you: all the time, forgiving in mercy, enlightening by his Word, loving and empowering you through the Holy Spirit. Christ’s presence is a sanctifying grace, i.e., a holy-making gift, because the Holy God -- Creator, Redeemer, and Amazing Love -- hands God’s very self over to you and to me, God’s “favored” ones. In Paul’s words, “...the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s the gist of today’s Collect: “O God, you direct our lives by your grace...”: from within us, in the deepest place of our being.
Coming to faith by gradual awareness of God’s presence in us through Christ and the Spirit, in the very person and nature in which you and I are created, amounts to something of a personal revolution. We’re all seekers by nature. Spiritual writer James Finley describes a seeker as "a person who, having once caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do". We can all think of times when we’ve had “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. In those moments we subtly recognize the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; even in experiencing death, our own or others’. These are moments of revelation, literally, of having the “veil”, the curtain, pulled back for us. God passes through the gate in our momentary quickenings, awakening us to the Amazing Love which is Godself, given to us in our creation. God continually awakens you and me to see that we have the ability to live habitually conscious of this Love giving Itself away. It calls forth in us a desire for a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. And the effect of these “awakenings” is cumulative, i.e., they lead to our wanting to set out upon the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with the Love which abides within us. For some, this happens at an important turning-point in life. For others, it gains momentum through a longer process of investigation, questioning, study, and struggle. For all of us, this is what we mean by “following Christ”, living the Christian life, living in grace.

In June, 1965, I had the privilege of making a Cursillo weekend in Ft. Wayne, IN. During that time, the second talk was given by a Fr. McNulty. I have no recollection of him at all, since he was there only for that talk. But I do remember that the title of his talk was “Grace”, and that in my original notes I jotted down that he had said this: “Grace is what God has to do to me to enable me to love as [God] loves.

Today’s Collect suggests what that is in practice, for we ask God to “Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another.” It’s in that way that we present ourselves, as Paul says, as servants committed to righteousness for sanctification. It’s also how, as Matthew’s Gospel (10:40-42) indicates, we welcome and introduce others to Christ, by letting them see Jesus in our words and actions. That, in turn, allows justice and mercy to come to another person through us even in the simple gesture of giving that person a cup of cold water. None of such people, Jesus says, “will lose their reward.” 
Francis Thompson, for whose poem, The Hound of Heaven, I’ve had great love since high school, talks in that poem about Love’s relentless pursuit of you and me. These lines of his couldn’t be a better summing up of Grace:

Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms, 
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”  


1 comment:

John Julian said...

I have always defined grace as "the vital life of Godself" and then I ran onto the following from Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain":

"“What is grace? It is God’s own life, shared by us. God’s life is Love. Deus caritas est… Indeed, outside of Him there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by His free gift of its being..."