Month: September 2021

By what authority?

There are many stories about Jesus being a healing presence among people troubled by various physical and/or emotional infirmities. He said things like, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Some religionists of his day viewed Jesus’ healing action as radical and blasphemous, asking, “By what authority are you doing these things?” And, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The followers of Jesus continued this tradition of proclaiming forgiveness.

After Emperor Constantine (272-337), Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. The church became a powerful institution and an arbiter of forgiveness, of who is “in” and who is “out” of the community of faith, with a growing focus on one’s status after death.

The radical proclamation of unconditional forgiveness (i.e., grace) tends to get bureaucratized over time, but occasionally someone will remind the world how things really are–that grace is woven into the fabric of the universe, not to be dispensed by any authority.

This is one way of understanding Jesus, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and countless others.

From “Saint Clare of Assisi,” Franciscan Media

Presupposition of grace

To paraphrase yesterday’s post about grace, in more modern language: How would life be if we presupposed a Universe of grace? Presupposition means “something tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a course of action.” What if everyone tacitly assumed that the Universe is bathed in grace (i.e., unmerited favor)? Rather than trying to assess or judge each person’s relative value, what if we assumed everyone has infinite value?

What if we expect the best from each other? What if we look at ourselves and others through the lens of grace? What if we assume everyone has an inner wholeness, a potential for good that may not yet be discovered?

Much of religion has focused on what’s broken, rather than on what’s whole. Psalm 130 is a refreshing departure from that pattern. It presupposes grace. Imagine ancient Jewish mourners singing as they walk to the cemetery for a burial: “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” The presupposition is that God doesn’t keep score. That’s liberating!

From Northern Ireland Chaplains Online

Imputation of grace

The word “impute” entered my consciousness in a long ago conversation with Bob Tuttle, now a retired professor of theology. A gift such as grace, for example, can be imputed (i.e., ascribed, attributed, assumed, or offered). If a person chooses to accept a gift that has been imputed, it can be said that the gift has been received or imparted.

We impute things either good and bad onto other people all the time. A similar verb is project, as in, “He projected his negative attitude onto his neighbor.” To adopt grace as a major theme of one’s life is to impute, or project grace upon another person. People who’ve been abused have had rage or some other negative emotion thrust upon them, or imputed to them.

To impute grace to another person can be life-giving, or life-saving, if he or she has been the recipient of neglect, violence, or some other form of harm. Sometimes a person cannot comprehend why he or she is being accepted or loved unconditionally, so he or she may say, “What’s the catch?” The imputation of grace can change everything for the better.

From Thankful Homemaker

Grace team

My friend Joe asked me to be part of a grace team, a small group of people embracing the ancient, still radical theme that all is forgiven. The team would seek to live out the big, audacious idea (reality) of unconditional love for everyone and everything.

Joe’s vision echoes Charles Wesley’s hymn “Wrestling Jacob,” about pure, universal Love:

‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love that wrestled me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure, universal Love thou art.
To me, to all, thy mercies move—
thy nature and thy name is Love
.

Joe’s inner calling seems impossible, but he’s discovering an informal global community of like-minded people. Joe has tapped into a Spirit movement bigger than we can know.

I had planned to write about the global movement toward authoritarianism. But first, I have some grace work to do and some grace blogs to write.

Somewhere to Begin,” by Sara Thomsen may become the theme song for the grace team

Paul’s grace

On Saturday morning, a friend sent word that our mutual friend and colleague Paul Clayton died during the night. He had been in an induced coma after heart surgery at age 86. In 2005, I was privileged to follow Paul’s long tenure as pastor of a congregation in west Tennessee.

In the days leading up to my arrival, the mayor of the city sent me a welcome letter, with a warning that following Paul would be like following Bear Bryant as coach at Alabama. It gave me something to read to the congregation on my first Sunday.

Paul was extremely gracious and hospitable. There had been an interim period between his departure and my arrival. He continued to reside in the community but he and his wife Carolyn stayed away from his former pastorate during the interim period.

I asked Paul to say a prayer on my first Sunday. He demurred, as was his style, saying the focus should be on me. I said, “It will help me for you offer a prayer that day.” He did. During my tenure, he and seven other retired clergy in the congregation were strong encouragers.

Some transitions are difficult. Paul made ours easy. He was a pastor not just to the congregation but to the entire city. Any good that occurred during my time there was in no small part due to Paul’s grace. I thought about him, with gratitude, all day yesterday.

First United Methodist Church, Jackson, Tennessee: Clayton Hall is the building on the left, built during Paul’s tenure, a facility that serves the downtown Jackson community in many ways

Go Vols!

We live in a very quiet place, surrounded by trees and the animals that live in and around them. The night quiet is sometimes broken by an owl or two preparing dinner, or a coyote buffet, but most of the time it’s silence until the morning birds began to sing.

We’re tent camping at a Tennessee state park. The first days were stormy and cold. I kept humming “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But, it cleared up and warmed up and we’ve met some nice neighbors, such as Sophie, Gabby and Olive. Their humans are nice, too.

This park is convenient to shopping and easy access to two major highways that aren’t quite as close as they sound. I’ve lived near highways so I know to imagine it’s the sound of waves at the beach and it quickly lulls me to sleep.

But, all in all it’s a quiet, peaceful place and a great location to soak up the mountains that surround it. Well, it was quiet until Friday. Now it’s as full as Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium on Saturday. It appears that we’re part of a community Vols tailgate party. Go Vols!

From “Tips for a Stylish Southern Tailgate with Draper James,” Lone Star Looking Glass

Woodward, again

The Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency seemed like water torture, unfolding slowly on national television, with significant incriminating disclosures coming one-by-one over time, until the president’s party leaders told him he would be removed from office unless he resigned.

Much of the early, significant reporting about the 1972 break-in at the Democratic campaign office at the Watergate office building was done by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I was 21 when the break-in occurred. I was 25 when the movie All The President’s Men was released. When I see Woodward or Bernstein, I think they should look like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Such is the power of cinema.

Fast forward almost 50 years and Woodward is writing about presidents, again. This time, with Robert Costa. Their book is Peril, released on September 21. I plan to read it this fall. It will be a prelude to a big 2022 legal showdown over the events of January 6. Here’s some background reading from my favorite conservative publication, The Bulwark and a Fact Check by MSN.

From “Time Machine: 1974 review if ‘All the President’s Men,'” by Ron Dorfman, October 30, 2014. Chicago Triubune.

Ideas worthy of debate

Today, we’re near the home of Howard Baker, Jr. (1925-2014), in east Tennessee. For a century after the Civil War, east Tennessee was evenly divided between Democrats (many of whom were descendants of Confederate sympathizers), Republicans (many of whom were descendants of Union sympathizers), and independents (of various lineages). Things change.

Earlier this week, I asked my 90-year-old aunt (born six years after Howard Baker) about her “group of five” very close friends from her years at Hiwassee College (1949-1951). She said, “We lived in the same dorm on the same floor.” Then she added, “We were all Methodists and all Republicans.” I have some nostalgia, and considerable grief, for the GOP.

Both major political parties are debating their essential convictions. The Republican Party, beginning with Lincoln, has a heritage of noble ideas and principles. Will they be true to them? Or, will they be a personality cult that tolerates insurrection? God be with them.

Last Friday I saw a refreshing conversation on Firing Line with Margaret Hoover and George Will: “What does it mean to be a conservative today.” Click here to watch it on YouTube.

From the September 17, 2021 edition of PBS’ Firing Line with Margaret Hoover. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will discusses the conservative movement from William F. Buckley Jr. to the present, why he says many modern Republican politicians are not true conservatives, and what’s next for Trumpism

Ideas in tension

Fifty years ago, Elizabeth O’Connor published Our Many Selves: A Handbook for Self-Discovery. She began with the biblical story of Legion, a troubled man who lived in a cemetery: Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

Beyond Legion’s dissociative disorder, the story challenges me to better understand, and more fully integrate, the many seemingly contradictory ideas that live inside me.

I’m a fiscal conservative who believes, with George Will, in limited government. I’m a white male southerner who agreed with John Lewis and the principle behind the proposed voting rights act that bears his name.

Neither democrat nor republican, I affirm the best ideas of those two traditions. I identify as Christian, but I’m more at home in a synagogue than in many of today’s churches. I love a vibrant discussion of ideas. I’m a walking debate team. My name is Legion.

As Jesus said, “What’s your name?”

From Our Many Selves: A Handbook for Self-Discovery (Revised Edition), by Elizabeth O’Connor

Acceptance

Richard Rohr spends the first hour of each day praying wordlessly, “trying to find my way to yes.” Whether our death, the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or another major unwanted turn in life, grief is finding our way to yes amid a great no.

In those moments, we grieve over the good parts of life we’re losing. But, life also includes some painful, not-so-good parts. As the bad parts pass, we may feel relief mixed with grief.

The process of denial, anger, bargaining and depression may bring a surprising acceptance, a healing or reconciliation, a sense of grace and gratitude, a benediction, a peace at the last.

Jacqueline Dooley said C.S. Lewis “found a path to acceptance which enabled him to feel close to (his wife’s) memory without drawing on sorrow as the main point of connection.”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said grief can bring acceptance. May our collective grief bring healing, reconciliation and acceptance to our nation and world.

From “A Review of C.S. Lewis’s ‘A Grief Observed’,” by Jacqueline Dooley, Grief Book Club, medium.com, November 1, 2019