Pushing away grace

Reading Genesis WellIn my church, we sometimes find it most loving to be “careful with the images” in the sense that (for example) when we pray on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day we want to be gentle, knowing that there are some who would like to be mothers but can not; and some who had fathers who did not remotely model Godly fatherhood. That makes this passage particularly poignant:

small quotes blue[Some biblical] images we recognize from our own experience, but once we have grasped them, they in turn cause us to revise the way we carry out the activity. An example would be God as father; as Proverbs 3:12 has it, “for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” There is no reason to suppose that the compilers of Proverbs had a too-rosy view of what actual fathers are like; they could no doubt be every bit as distant, abusive, short-tempered, or just plain inconsistent in Israel as they can in the modern West. But most people have an intuition of what a father ought to be and can use that for thinking about God. The image has a varied texture.

So God is compared to a father not because fathers are perfect fathers but because God is a perfect father.

Another instance is Psalm 103:13, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” Those who meet the image halfway, allowing imagination and intuition to prevent experience from making them cynical, may find their own practice of fathering is changed to be more like what they perceive God’s to be, infusing tender compassion into moral education.

C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well 76 (2018) [amazon].

A brilliant point I think, but here is what I thought when I read it—those who will not meet the image (fatherhood, marriage, parental compassion, exuberant celebration, feasting, fertility) halfway because of past experience push away a part of the grace offered to them.

And we each need grace too much to push any of it away.

Let us open our hearts to the metaphors in which God speaks.

Reading

current reading 2Three of my favorite online writers. Please realize these pull quotes aren’t the main course:

Alan Jacobs, “Defilement and Expulsion,” Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 11, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueWhen a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, “Second Wife, Second Life” Fathom (Feb. 11, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueI suppose there is such a thing as what some would call their no-fault divorce, but I have never seen one entirely without faults.

Sarah Willard, “Greatest Treasure,” Blind Mule Blog (Feb. 6, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueThe hardest thing about loving elderly people, and caring for them, is death. It has a way of taking people, you know, clear off the face of the earth.

“Faith and . . .”

“The ‘I surrender’ list,” Mockingbird (Jan. 28, 2019) [link]

small quotes blue[T]he opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Wow.

Living with sin, living with others

current reading 2Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans 130 (W. Pauck, trans.) (Westminster John Knox Press 1961):

small quotes blue[T]his life is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven, however, is the palace where the whole and the righteous live.


Justin Lee, “In The Age Of #MeToo, Men Must Read More Literary Fiction,” ARC (Nov. 6, 2018) [link]. Lee argues that fiction reading impacts the reader’s ability to place themselves in another’s shoes:

small quotes blueReading fiction requires a sustained act of imagination: you inhabit a world of others, identify with their joys and travails, even learn the texture of their minds. Serious readers know that reading great fiction enhances their ability to empathize. And habitual reading helps sustain that empathy, makes it reflexive.

This (not surprisingly) makes me think of a well-known quotation from another Lee:

small quotes blue“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (Atticus speaking to his daughter, Scout).

I believe both Lees are correct.

It’s not all clickbait . . .

current reading 2small quotes blueThe less you know about a person, the easier it is to venerate them, which is why you generally don’t want your children writing your biography. My favorite parts of biographies are not the quotes from the person being written about, but rather from those who knew them well — or — too well.

Josh Retterer, “Stories Told Behind Auden’s Back,” Mockingbird (Oct. 24, 2018) [link].

It is also true that the less you know about a person the easier it is to demonize them, which probably goes for everyone we read about in the “news.”


Sarah Willard, “The Pilgrim Soul,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 17, 2018) [link] writes about dementia and memory:

small quotes blueIt can be very hard when someone you love is losing their memory, not to lose yours too. It’s easy to only see who they are in the moment, and not who they are really, which includes who they have been and who they will be.

One anodyne for dementia is the shared memory of the ones who give care.


Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil before Hitler,” The Atlantic (Oct. 9, 2018) [link], raises the interesting question “Who was evil incarnate before Hitler?” and suggests some history lessons germane to our current discourse:

small quotes blueOur present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.


From Søren Kierkegaard, via Alan Jacobs:

small quotes blueThe Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes and Ladders (May 6, 2013) [link].

This is a hyperbole, of course, but I often wonder how much we will eventually be shown that our careful exegesis was really carefully hidden eisegesis.

What about sin?

current reading 2It is hard for non-believers to understand just why Christians are always so concerned with the idea of sin. Simeon Zahl, in an essay reprinted in Mockingbird (“Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin”) explains why, and why this is significant.

small quotes blueWhen I try to explain [to my students] that Christians have traditionally believed that human beings are deeply flawed from birth, and furthermore that God is profoundly unhappy about these flaws, I watch my students’ eyes grow skeptical. I watch their postures shift the way students always do when they disagree with what you are telling them. . . .

*    *    *

My point is this: in the edifice of Christian belief, the doctrine of sin is a major load-bearing structure. It is not theologically optional. To lose it, or to downplay it, or to reframe it in terms that are less offensive to our sense of self-worth, is in the long run to render Christianity unintelligible to people.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made much the same point in his essay “God in the Dock”:

small quotes blueThe greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

God in the Dock, 243–4 (1970).

Zahl goes on to offer some ways of thinking about sin which may communicate the truth about sin to modern people (like each of us) who have been trained to think in very different terms. He ends by saying:

small quotes blueIt is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician. It is our sin that makes Christ intelligible to us.

Worth the time.

Longing and love

current reading 2SW writes about our mistaken desire for permanence in this world, when it is really another country for which we long:

I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does.

Sarah Willard, “In Ruins,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 2, 2018) [link].


CG reminds us that in the end it is impossible for us to overstate God’s love or to rationalize it:

We have such a hard time accepting that God’s love truly reaches out to all people, even the people we hate or disagree with, and even (especially?) to we ourselves. We insist on qualifying grace, which necessarily renders that grace null and void. We worry that if people start to believe that grace is true in all cases and that God loves people with reckless abandon all hell will break loose.

Connor Gwin, “Qualifying the Reckless Love of God,” Mockingbird (Sept. 24, 2018) [link].

Empathy

current reading 2It was not that they were looking for meaning, this man and woman on the hilltop in the early morning. They were too tired for that. But it rose like the sun among us, shadowed and slow, revealing a day we did not wish to see. In waiting, in sleepless nights, in labor, in fears, in blood, in tears, in a grave, in the gospel of the brokenhearted, in the life of the world to come, in a moment, our labor is not in vain . . . .” Sarah Willard, “Talitha Cumi,” Blind Mule Blog (Sept. 11, 2018) [link].

Elissa Ely, “From Bipolar Darkness, the Empathy to be a Doctor,” New York Times (Mar. 16, 2009) [link]; see also Alan Jacobs, “Rene Giraud, please call your office,” Snakes & Ladders (August 29, 2018) [link].