‘Grace always bats last’

A confession: I’m not normally a fan of TED talks (especially the religious ones), but every non-fan ought to at least live with the possibility of making an exception every now and then:

‘The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last’.

Grace always bats last’! Well said Anne Lamott.

Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

ismail-al-rifai-motherA sermon preached at Box Hill Baptist Church, 13 November 2016
Text: 1 Kings 17.8–24

It is not for the first time, but what a dark world we have entered – a world where hate and xenophobia and misogyny and the rape of natural resources is given free reign; a world poisoned by self-interest, and where contempt for the rule of law grows louder. It is not for the first time, but we are living in a world where what is being violently compromised is any sense that if we are to flourish and not flounder as human community then we simply must find ways to befriend the stranger and to celebrate the dignity of our differences. This world has a name: fear.

Little wonder then that not a few parents are writing letters to their children apologising for our inability to protect them from the growing horrors, and to renew their own daring determination to fight the powers of death wherever such rear their heads in the desperate hope that while the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, it does finally bend towards justice. Such letters, it seems to me, are a profound act of desperation born of faith and, more importantly, of love. It also seems to me that those who stand on the side of life will need to get used to writing such letters, and will need to ask again and again ‘How then shall we live?’

So we gather to hear the living Word of God. Our text today is part of a pattern of the presentation of very many lives of mostly unnamed women in the Bible who are contending with forces that threaten life and trade in death. From the Hebrew mid-wives back in the days when Israel was enslaved to the foreign powers of Egypt and their resistance to Pharaoh’s call to slaughter their own children; to the tragic story of a young woman in Judges 11 who was victimized by the stupidity of her father Jephthah against whose violence she had to carve out for herself a space where she could affirm her dignity in the face of impending and unnecessary death; to Naomi and Ruth, two widows threatened by famine and who became vulnerable migrants who find a way, against all the odds, to preserve life and to endure; to a pregnant teenager desperate to find a safe place to give birth to a child whose name was given by angels but whose arrival was greeted with a mixture of unbridled joy, confusion, and as a threat to the ruling powers. The women in the Bible find themselves ensnared in a hostile world that is stalked by death and in which they are called to preserve life.[1]

This story from the Book of First Kings about a widow and her encounter with the prophet Elijah is not an altogether unplayed track. She is, it seems, a religious person, but her God goes by a different name than does Elijah’s. And she is living in Zarephath in Sidon, deep enemy terror for Elijah because it is the home of Jezebel and the land of Baal. This means that she represents something of a risk to this unkempt stranger, this ‘man of God’ (as she calls him) from the wilderness. Her vulnerability too speaks of risk, a risk that the word of God presents to those who confront it. Will he harm her? Will she tame him?

This unnamed woman who has already survived the death of a spouse is now grasping for hope in a time of literal and of emotional drought. In the economies of the ancient world, people like her had few choices – to carry the shame of returning to their parent’s house, or to become a beggar, or to find employment in the oldest profession in the world – whatever made survival a possibility.

And there is a child involved as well, a fatherless son. They are, together, Bible shorthand for the most vulnerable and at risk members of the human family. And there is a famine in the land. Certainly this woman and her son are up against it, their lives profoundly threatened in a world and a system that seems to conspire against them. For them there is no social security, no hardship funds that they can tap into, and no food.

Their lives are caught up in a conflict between the powers and the gods around them to which their lives mean nothing. That’s why there’s a drought – because Baal and his promoter Ahab, and Yahweh and his promoter Elijah, are embroiled in an arm wrestle over who’s god can control the weather. It is all very well for the gods to try and out-manoeuvre and out-muscle one another, but caught up in the conflict, implicated in the struggle, is this widow and her son, helpless victims of divine warfare. And as with previous stories of widows at risk there is a scene of great poignancy at the heart of the narrative, as in this case our nameless mother is pictured gathering sticks in order to make a fire to prepare a last meal after which she and her thin and listless son will lie down and die.[2]

What an image this story offers us for our world today – a vision of a reality in which life itself is at the mercy of social and political and economic and natural and spiritual forces and powers that threaten us and threaten a kind of death of creation itself. Here is an image of a world that makes victims of us all, and a world that mocks our grand pretensions while tempting us to look to our own idols of technological sophistication and to the allure of a neo-capitalist machinery for liberation.

Up against this tide of death and seemingly-unbridled violence, it is just so hard, isn’t it, to keep believing in life; indeed, to keep believing in anything at all. It seems impossible, or worse, to imagine a way out, a way that ends with anything other than the experience recorded here in vv. 17­–18, with the pitiful death of this widow and her son, and with the brute accusation that this prophet of God, this religious nutter, had in fact been complicit in the death of this boy.

Thank God that there is another word here; that there breaks into this pathetic scenario four words – four crucial words that reverberate throughout Scripture, four words that promise another possibility, another ending, another future; albeit one almost impossible to imagine from what we know of the history behind us and from what we can see now on the horizons in front of us. But let us be as fools and risk hearing them anyway, these words recorded in verse 13: ‘Do … not … be … afraid’. ‘Do not be afraid’, says Elijah. Just as Isaiah spoke to exiles languishing hopeless and helpless before the mighty powers of Babylon, so too does Elijah dare to speak such insanity to those diminishing under despair and the abuse of power. ‘Do not be afraid!’ – the same words echoed many years later by an angel to a teenage girl about to relinquish all control over her life in giving birth to a son.

‘Do not be afraid!’ – words spoken in the sure knowledge that there are indeed forces at work in the world that leave us helpless and impotent, and that would destroy us. And these words are also spoken out of the promise that there is an incommensurable power at work in the world, a power that works not against us but for us, a power that leads us not into destruction but into well-being and into the flourishing of life in all its infinite forms. There is indeed some good in this world, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us; and it’s worth fighting for. It is the power of grace – grace that produces flour that does not give out, and oil that does not fail; grace that speaks life – strange and unexpected – in defiance of death.

Here is this widow on the brink of starvation with her last drops of water and her last handful of flour and her last dribbles of oil and Elijah asks her to give the first portion of it all to him, and she does. Why? Why the hell would someone do that? Such a selfless, generous act makes no sense at all. It’s a pattern played out again today in so many parts of our world, where the poorest among us – the Lebanese, for example, who have taken in over a million people from Syria, and the Turks who have welcomed 2.7 million Syrian refugees – extend hospitality while many of the richest and most powerful among us shut the door to the other – to those like the Syrian man Rabia and his family who were kidnapped and tortured by their own government, and then threatened by and forced to run and hide from various other terrorist organisations, and who had their business ransacked by gunmen, and who have been waiting and hiding in Lebanon for over two years after applying for an Australian refugee visa because our elected government told them that ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door’.[3]

There are certainly no easy or painless answers here. The Lebanese, for their part, have certainly not forgotten the 29 years, between 1976–2005, when they lived and died under Syrian occupation. Here too the life-giving power of grace enters the world in ways that appear foolish and counter-productive and that require irrational amounts of trust.

The Bible has another word for all of this; it’s the word ‘love’ – love which perseveres, which believes all things, which hopes all things, which presses on in faith and hope towards the healing of all things, which looks up towards the horizon for the coming of the untameable promise of God.

The friends of Jesus see themselves in this widow, for like her we are called to lean into the counter-intuitive, apparently counter-productive and foolish ways of love. The friends of Jesus are summoned, like this widow, to demonstrate that love works its way into the world by strange but determined means. The friends of Jesus are called to witness to the world that violence will not defeat violence, that killing is not the way to overcome the forces that threaten life. The friends of Jesus are baptised to be peace-makers in ways that will never make sense to a world dominated by powers committed to work in other ways. The friends of Jesus are those who, in hope that what is promised is really coming, exemplify forgiveness, and reconciliation, and patience, and cheek turning; they model a pattern of life that in the amphitheatre of death appears as futile as a starving widow giving her last scraps to a foreigner. And the friends of Jesus are also a bit like Elijah as well – wild and untamed by circumstances, and committed to living a life that would make no sense where it not for the word of God itself. And when accused of bringing about the death of innocence, rather than defend themselves they do all that they can to try to find ways of bearing that death themselves, crying out to God, and then, as we read in v. 21, stretching themselves out upon the body of death, taking some responsibility for it, and waiting for the impossible – for life to emerge from the ruins. I am here reminded of words from the poet Arnold Kenneth:

The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.[4]

This was the kind of courageous vision that spurred the work of the great American priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan who died earlier this year. It was his conviction that

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.[5]

In her time of drought, a widow holding her lifeless son opened her life to an unwanted stranger. In doing so, she may well have discovered that where she was, was where God is found: in prolonged absence, and – inescapably – amidst the stench of death, broken and abandoned on the cross – not for God’s self but for God’s enemies. The cross is where God goes in order to enter into the madness, and pain, and shame, and confusion, and fear, and darkness, and hypocrisy, and terror … and every hell of the world. ‘Where we are and who we are is the furnace where the Son of God walks’.[6] And because the cross is not an event locked in the past but is the eternal present of God in the world, perhaps the faithful Creator has not abandoned this world after all, but is here – hidden in impossible possibilities, and with the determination to not leave creation orphaned. If this is indeed so, perhaps there could be nothing more important to do today than to go out and plant a tree. Amen.

–––––

[1] Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to some reflections on this passage from Lance Stone’s sermon ‘The Power of Grace’, preached at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, 11 November 2012.

[2] ‘Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation’. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.

[3] See Josh Butler, ‘Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa’.

[4] Arnold Kenseth, The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

[5] Daniel Berrigan, Love, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers, and Meditations (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 76.

[6] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2003), 98.

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

‘The Good Man in Hell’, by Edwin Muir

Blake Dante Hell X Farinata

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live and could live well

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, all Eden would enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

– Edwin Muir, ‘The Good Man in Hell’ in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 104.

Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Reverend’ on the grace of God

‘They’s been more than one feller brought to the love of Jesus over the paths of affliction. And what better way than blind? In a world darksome as this’n I believe a blind man ort to be better sighted than most. I believe it’s got a good deal to recommend it. The grace of God don’t rest easy on a man. It can blind him easy as not. It can bend him and make him crooked. And who did Jesus love, friends? The lame the halt and the blind, that’s who. Them is the ones scarred with God’s mercy. Stricken with his love. Ever legless fool and old blind mess like you is a flower in the garden of God. Amen’. – Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark (New York: Random, 1968), 226.

On confession

One of the things that the so-called ‘Parable of the Two Sons’ teaches us is that as far as God is concerned, repentance is not principally about the admission of guilt or the acknowledgement of fault but rather is first and foremost about the confession of death. Another thing that the parable announces is that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is subsequent to forgiveness. Confession is not a transaction. Confession is not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Confession is, as Robert Farrar Capon avers in The Parables of Grace, ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have … The sheer brilliance of the retention of infant baptism by a large portion of the church catholic is manifest most of all in the fact that babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that they have it … And our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins remains the lifelong sacrament, the premier sign of that fact. No subsequent forgiveness – no eucharist, no confession – is ever anything more than an additional sign of what baptism sacramentalizes … We may be unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but the God who does it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind’ (pp. 140–1).

‘What the Father Came to See’, by Paul Mariani

How old the story is, we have come to see, and yet how true.
The kid’s back home at last, knowing he’s lost everything
the old man gave him, spent on booze and one-night
stands, a sucker for every sob story his friends had found
to separate him from what they saw as their inheritance.
And, now, when the cash was gone, and the kid out on his own,

alone, reduced to doling out ripe slops to pigs, while his own
gut growled for what the swine had trampled on, true
to their indifferent boorish nature (the inheritance
all such pigs are born to), the kid kept thinking how everything
he’d ever needed the old man had always given him. And so he found
himself heading home at last, even as his sick soul’s dark night—

replete with hissing fevers—loomed ever larger. So, with one eye open night
after chilly night in some piss-soaked alleyway he longed to call his own
as he watched for snarling dogs and whistling perverts, he somehow found
himself at last back home, where his father—and this is true, true,
so help me God—ran out in ragged slippers to hold his lost son up, everything
forgiven, as the kid slumped earthward, believing his inheritance

had gone up in acrid smoke. But the father knew his real inheritance—
the only thing that mattered—was what the cold, indifferent night
had unwillingly given up: his boy kneeling there before him, the one thing
worth living for: his kid back home again, alive, his own
beloved son, chastened, yes, but somehow still alive. True,
the boy looked awful and he stank of shit, but the old man found

his deepest prayers were answered, that the one he’d lost was found
and home again. Time to celebrate, then, time to make a new inheritance
for his son—now sobered—something the kid would try to earn. True,
all of this would only come with the daily round of things. But that night
the old man meant to throw a party for everyone, serve up his own
best fattened calf, along with wine and cakes and song, oh, everything!

But then there was the other son, the good one, who’d done everything
the old man had ever asked of him, dutifully, and had even found
some satisfaction in doing it, if not much fun, and just then did not feel like own-
ing that he knew this ragged wretch who no doubt meant to eat up his inheritance.
You see him there, bigger than the kneeling son, truculent, the bleak night
shadows etched there on his face, and justified, if what we know about ourselves is true.

And the older son is right, it’s true, which the father knows as he knows day from night.
God knows the good son deserves the inheritance which for him means everything,
But these are his sons, his very own, of whom one at least was lost and has been found.

[Source: First Things]

(Some people, like Anne Stewart, literally live – or at least try to live – on the assumption that the kind of economy of relations witnessed to in Luke 15 might actually say something about how things are. The world is possible because of such saints. So is the Church. And just as I can no longer read the Book of Exodus without seeing Charlton Heston, I can no longer read Luke 15 without recalling Anne’s passion for divine irresponsibility. Thanks Anne. And thanks too for ragged slippers that move at such speed to hold up lost children.

‘The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about the Christian’s faith is that it obviously presumes far too much. It is too good to be true: the mystery of being, revealed as absolute love, condescending to wash his creatures’ feet, and even their souls, taking upon himself all the confusion of guilt, all the God-directed hatred, all the accusations showered upon him with cudgels, all the disbelief that arrogantly covers up what he had revealed, all the mocking hostility that once and for all nailed down his inconceivable movement of self-abasement – in order to pardon his creature, before himself and the world’. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 102.)

 

Preaching on God’s justice as free grace

‘Preaching on justice means speaking about God in the indicative. Faced with the demand which God’s commandment places on us, our task is to deliver “the message of the free grace of God to all people” (Barmen VI). Because, in the Bible, justice is first and foremost a summarized rephrasing of God’s own good works. The Psalms declare: “How wonderful are the things the Lord does … his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 111:2f.). Hence, “the heavens proclaim his righteousness” (Ps 97:6) “and from one generation to the next … shall sing aloud of [his] righteousness” (Ps 145:7).

God’s justice (i.e., righteousness) – that is, his active caring for his creation – is his attentive accompaniment of his people; that is, his saving deeds and his good guidance. Justice – that is, his constant listening to the cries of the suffering – is his strong arm that liberates the captives; and in all this is God’s passionate love for his people, which can rage terribly about their wickedness and stupidity, but which can do nothing else except be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). Where the justitia is blind, indeed inevitably must be blind to avoid being dazzled by the specific case at hand, it is said of the God of Israel: he watches, he listens and he yields – he applies the freedom of his love by doing justice to each of his creatures in a way that is conducive to his or her life in his or her particular situation. Justice: that is the way of our God through the time and space of his creation, the way on which he keeps his covenant and faithfulness to Israel unto eternity, and through Israel to the whole world, and never abandons the work of his hands. And hence: In the path of righteousness there is life (Prov 12:28a).

Also in the [Accra Confession], this prae of God’s justice takes precedence before all human endeavour. That is why the statements of faith always start with confessions of belief in God before going on to the rejections of economic injustice and ecological destruction.

In this context, I believe it is important to explicitly praise the confessional character of the Accra Declaration. For, in a very specific way, it corresponds to the fact that for us Christians standing up for justice is not a matter of political belief, but the response to God’s own words and deeds, through which we live and to which we, in faith, bear witness.

In order to make this clear, the sermon will, however, have to make the praise for God’s justice resound more clearly and comprehensively than the Accra Confession did or was able to do. I draw attention again to what was said at the beginning regarding the distinction between confession and sermon. Whereas the Accra Confession recalls God’s action in rather dry theological sentences, the sermon, guided by Bible stories, tells of the salvation work of God in such a way that it becomes clear: what happened at that time is also true today; the (hi)story of God with his people also embraces my world and my (hi)story. God is able to change my world and my life, and he will do so!

Hence, the sermon should avoid speaking “gesetzlich” (which means mixing gospel and the law) about the gospel (Manfred Josuttis). This always happens when the impression is given that human deeds could/should take the place of God’s action, as in: “Easter occurs when we rise up against death…” This kind of sermon does not offer much comfort, for it leaves those hearing it on their own, when they would in actual fact be in urgent need of God’s healing action …

After Accra, our basic task in preaching, and simultaneously our unmistakable Christian contribution is to keep making new attempts to tell about the justice of God and to offer it to our listeners as free grace so that despite all their fears and hardship they will become aware of their wealth; despite all their weaknesses they will become aware of their God-given power (cf. 2 Cor 6:3ff.; 12:9) and so become willing and able to stand up to injustice’.

– Peter Bukowski, ‘Preaching on Justice: The Question of the Homiletic Implementation of the Accra Confession’, Reformed World 55, no. 3 (2005), 236–7, 238.

Alan Torrance on the Incarnation, grace and godly living

Grace Communion International regularly makes available a host of excellent interviews. The latest is a 31-minute interview with Alan Torrance by Mike Feazell in which Alan talks freely and movingly about one of his favourite topics – what the Incarnation means to us and how grace sponsors godly living. Also available as MP3, MP4 and wmv.

Advent IV: Weighing the virgin conception

Today’s New Zealand Herald ran this image and its accompanying story about an Auckland church’s (St Matthews’) new billboard. I’m not really interested here in engaging with the controversy around the offensiveness or cleverness or otherwise of the image, or about how I feel about its defacement some five hours after it was erected. I am interested, however, in taking up the image’s and St Matthews’ (both St Matthews in fact, the apostle’s and the Auckland church’s) invitation to enquire about the Christmas event of Mary’s virginal conception, and about the Church’s ongoing proclamation of that event as part of the Good News for which it exists to bear witness.

So here’s my response to that invitation: The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

Flannery O’Connor on fiction and grace

‘What offends my taste in fiction is when right is held up as wrong, or wrong as right. Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery – mystery that is lived. Catholics believe that all creation is good and that evil is the wrong use of good and that without Grace we use it wrong most of the time. It’s almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively. As to natural Grace, we have to take that the way it comes – through nature. In any case, it operates surrounded by evil’. – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (ed. Sally Fitzgerald; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), 144.

The grace of judgement and the judgement of grace

rembrandt-van-rijn-christ-crucified-between-the-two-thieves-1653

Rembrandt van Rijn, 'Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves' (1653), drypoint and burin, National Gallery of Art, Washington

‘If a message of grace tell us there was and is no judgment any more, and that God has simply put judgment on one side and has not exercised it, that cannot be the true grace of God. Surely the grace of God cannot stultify our human conscience like that! So we are haunted by mistrust, unless conscience be drowned in a haze of heart. We have always the feeling and fear that there is judgment to follow. How may I be sure that I may take the grace of God seriously and finally, how be sure that I have complete salvation, that I may entirely trust it through the worst my conscience may say? Only thus, that God is the Reconciler, that He reconciles in Christ’s Cross that the judgment of sin was there for good and all’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 167–8.

Lent Reflection 4: TF Torrance on power

Hercules‘[The] movement of God’s holy love into the heart of the world’s evil and agony is not to be understood as a direct act of sheer almighty power, for it is not God’s purpose to shatter and annihilate the agents and embodiments of evil in the world, but rather to pierce into the innermost center of evil power where it is entrenched in the piled-up and self-compounding guilt of humanity in order to vanquish it from within and below, by depriving it of the lying structures of half-truth on which it thrives and of the twisted forms of legality behind which it embattles itself and from which it fraudulently gains its power. Here we have an entirely different kind and quality of power, for which we have no analogies in our experience to help us understand it, since it transcends every kind of moral and material power we know, the power which the Bible calls grace …’. – Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), 136.

Grace: an ‘intensity of outward attention’

The NYT recently ran an interesting piece by Lee Siegel on George Steiner, a kind of follow-up/review piece of Steiner’s recently-released book George Steiner at The New Yorker. The article included one of the best definitions of grace that I’ve encountered: grace is ‘an intensity of outward attention — interest, curiosity, healthy obsession …’.

Christian theologians will no doubt want to further define grace – that is, to say something about how grace takes on fallen flesh and stubbornly refuses to be fallen in it, that this ‘intensity of outward attention’ takes place in a particular person, etc. – but Siegel’s definition goes a long way to bearing witness to something of grace’s existential motivation.

Want more? Read Real Presences; it’s absolutely brilliant.

‘Adam, where are you?’

descent‘God … has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him … “I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead”‘. – ‘Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday’, ascribed to Epiphanius of Constantia, cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church (Homebush: Society of St Pauls, 1994), 165:

Christians on their best side

rembrant-prodigal-son-detail‘In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, fond themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).’ – Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV,4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 80.

A Challenge Towards Hospitality

‘Where welcoming gays and lesbians in congregations translates into a denial of their calling to ministry and a dismissal of same-sex partnerships; where welcoming the homeless means a remote corner of the church building may be reserved for “their” use; where extending hospitality to children means removing them from worship and whisking them away to a dingy and cluttered room, the hospitality of Jesus’ name is not extended … [T]o name Jesus in acts of hospitality and care is to be caught up in the entire trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. To speak his name is to be drawn into the way of Jesus Christ: away of vulnerable love made real in the flesh that opens us radically to others. This is not a way of privilege, superiority, and trumpeting exclusion, but covenant, vulnerability, and difference. To welcome in the name of Jesus means that others have a claim on us.’ – David H. Jensen, Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 132.

Getting Kant out of my system

Having spent most of today reading that great father of modern thought – Kant – I confess that what I once discerned as a growing admiration for this Enlightenment thinker with ‘a good dose of Lutheran and Pauline scepticism’ is slowly being ebbed away. In fact, the more I read, it seems, the quicker the ebb ebbs. For example, consider this sample:

Because men are exceedingly frail in all acts of morality, and not only what they practise as a good action is very defective and flawed, but they also consciously and wilfully violate the divine law, they are quite unable to confront a holy and just judge, who cannot forgive evil-doing simpliciter. The question is, can we, by our vehement begging and beseeching, hope for and obtain through God’s goodness the forgiveness of all our sins? No, we cannot without contradiction conceive of a kindly judge; as ruler he may well be kindly, but a judge must be just. For if God could forgive all evil-doing, He could also make it permissible and if He can grant impunity, it rests also on His will to make it permitted; in that case, however, the moral laws would be an arbitrary matter, though in fact they are not arbitrary, but just as necessary and eternal as God. God’s justice is the precise allocation of punishments and rewards in accordance with men’s good or bad behaviour. The divine will is immutable. Hence we cannot hope that because of our begging and beseeching God will forgive us everything, for in that case it would be a matter, not of well-doing, but of begging and beseeching. We cannot therefore conceive of a kindly judge without wishing that on this occasion He might close His eyes and allow Himself to be moved by supplications and flatteries; but this might then befall only a few, and would have to be kept quiet; for if it were generally known, then everyone would want it so, and that would make a mockery of the law … [Man] cannot, indeed, hope for any remission of punishment for his crimes from a benevolent ruler, since in that case the divine will would not be holy; but man is holy insofar as he is adequate to the moral law; he can, therefore, hope for kindness from the benevolent ruler, not only in regard to the physical, where the very actions themselves already produce good consequences, but also in regard to the moral; but he cannot hope to be dispensed from morality, and from the consequences of violating it. The goodness of God consists, rather, in the aids whereby He can make up for the deficiencies of our natural frailty and thereby display His benevolence. – Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics (ed. P. Heath and J. B. Schneewind; trans. P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 114–5.

Ouch! It makes one wonder if Kant had ever read Galatians, or Romans! For what is absent in Kant here is not only any notion that the law of God is the law of God’s own being and so cannot be abstracted from God, but also any notion that in a world like ours holiness literally takes the form of grace.

This relates to something else that I’ve been thinking of today, namely Forsyth (as I do), whose deep indebtment to Kant is not without its criticisms. One of Forsyth’s greatest critiques of Kant is reserved for his discussion on prayer. He grants that Kant certainly represents ‘intellectual power and a certain stiff moral insight’, but he lacks ‘spiritual atmosphere, delicacy, or flexibility, which is rather the Catholic tradition’. It is in Kant’s treatment of prayer, Forsyth contends, that he most betrays an intellectualism that ‘tends to more force than finish, and always starves or perverts ethic’. This is because he treats prayer with ‘the equipment of his age’ rather than with the ‘practical experience’ that he would have gleaned if he had immersed himself in ‘the great saints or captains of the race’ like Paul, Thomas à Kempis, or even Cromwell and Gustavus Adolphus. If only Kant had gone to them, Forsyth conjectures, he would have ‘realized the difference between shame and shyness, between confusion at an unworthy thing and confusion at a thing too fine and sacred for exposure’.

God is for us!

Karl Barth once penned: ‘That man is against God is important and must be taken seriously. But what is far more important and must be taken more seriously is that in Jesus Christ God is for man. And it is only in the light of the second fact that the importance and seriousness of the first can be seen’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 154.

Yes! In Jesus Christ, God has shown not only that God does not want to be God without humanity, but also that God does not want humanity to be humanity without God. God’s will is that God might not be only for himself, but that God might be for humanity all that God is in his eternity. And in the action of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God is present and active among us to hear and answer prayers, to create and sustain life in every minum of creation, to empower human beings to keep saying ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to God, and to continuously bring home afresh the good news of the Father’s sanctifying action in Jesus Christ, guaranteeing humanity’s inheritance, and empowering us to live in the reality of being ‘holy and blameless’ before God (Eph 1:4). Because God is Holy Love (one of Forsyth’s great themes), humanity’s failure to participate in God’s holiness, is, at core, a denial of God’s love. It is to receive God’s grace in vain. 

Who would have ever thought? God is for us! Hallelujah!

[Image: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’. Oil on canvas (137 × 116 cm) — ca. 1659/60. Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin]

Luther on taking refuge in grace alone

‘Before the judgment seat of the world I am content to be dealt with according to the law; there I will answer and do what I ought. But before thee I would appeal to no law, but rather flee to the Cross and plead for grace and accept it as I am able. For the Scriptures teach me that God established two seats for men, a judgment seat for those who are still secure and proud and will neither acknowledge nor confess their sin, and a mercy seat for those whose conscience is poor and needy, who feel and confess their sin, dread his judgment, and yearn for his grace. And this mercy seat is Christ himself, as St. Paul says in Rom. 3 [:25], whom God has established for us, that we might have refuge there, since by ourselves we cannot stand before God. There shall I take my refuge when I have done or still do less than is meet and done much more of sin according to the law, both before and after my sanctification and justification. There my heart and conscience, regardless of how pure and good they are or can be in the sight of men, shall be as nothing, and they shall be covered over as it were with a vault, yea, with a fair heaven, which will mightily protect and defend them, the name of which is grace and the forgiveness of sins. Thereunder shall my heart and conscience creep and be safe’. – Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I (Edited by H.C. Oswald, J.J. Pelikan, H.T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 277.

‘Reflections on Grace’: A Review

Thomas A. Langford, Reflections on Grace (ed. Philip A. Rolnick, Jonathan R. Wilson; Eugene: Cascade Books, 2007. xi + 113 pages. ISBN: 978 1 55635 058 0. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

‘God present is grace’. So begins this collection of brief, but rich, reflections on the most precious of realities – the inexhaustible grace of God. In under 100 pages, Langford shares with us his reflections – penned during the last years of his life and published posthumously – of what he has learnt over a lifetime of learning about grace as gift, as truth, and as the converse of disgrace. Ever interpreted christologically, and never divorced from its enfleshment in the realities of creation and in the nurturing and interpretation within the community of God’s people, Langford gently – graciously – invites us to catch glimpses of nothing less than the Triune God, and to believe that this God not only speaks in ‘the tongue of our time’ (p. 22), but that he holds nothing of himself back as he throws himself into the most despicable and hopeless of human situations in order to bring transformation. This is grace’s self-giving and cruciform ‘edge’; it is ‘as real as the conditions in which life must be lived’ (p. 29).

Grace, Langford argues, is not only God’s ‘way of being’, but – precisely because it is such – it establishes our way of being, and makes possible ‘the integrity of the faithful responder’ (p. 105). Rejection of this grace, therefore, issues in the malformation of life. This United Methodist minister reminds us that our attempts to live as though God were absent atrophies human possibility and being.

While not convincing at every point (he over-presses, at times, a strained disjunction between God’s love and his law, for example), this is a beautifully-written book and deserves to be read slowly. It would be a great book to work through in a small group.