Category: Grace

A sign of hope

A recent trip through southern Pennsylvania on the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg was followed by some miles in Virginia on the Lee Highway to Appomattox. It was a peaceful, direct, one-day journey that took the survivors of Lee’s retreating army 20 months of more bloody battles. About 75 yards from Appomattox Court House, a modest room in a family’s residence was the site where Grant and Lee, each seated behind separate small tables, signed papers acknowledging the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The restored little village is part of a National Historic Park. A lone American flag is prominent on a pole at the entrance to the village. It’s a quiet, appropriate reminder that we are—at least officially–one nation. The little village reminds us that it was, and is, a costly oneness. Each day news events remind us that our oneness is still a work in progress, a unity yet to be fully realized 157 years after the surrender documents were inked. The park at Appomattox is a simple, somber witness to hope rising from the ashes of war.

A sign greets travelers that Appomattox County is “where our nation was reunited.” A more accurate statement would be, “Where our nation’s reunification began.” Big ideals, by their nature, are always works in progress, as in “liberty and justice for all.” But I wouldn’t change the sign that welcomes travelers. Leave it as it is, a reminder that though we’re an incomplete, unfinished project, something really important happened there. Our nation was reunited, even as we continue to discover the potential of a truly united nation.

From National Park Service

Eternal life

My early life was influenced by what Marcus Borg called an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity. I was not as focused on life after death as some folks, but Billy Graham (in the 1950s) and the dominant Protestant culture of my youth gave me a consciousness that included afterlife.

In my mid-20s, coincident with my time in seminary, I began to view life after death as “sheer bonus” (a Theodore Runyon phrase). I saw it not as an extension of earth-ways, but a cosmic, universal reality that is without beginning and without end. Eternity is now, and always.

A dear friend, shortly before his death at a relatively young age, told me that he had heard a definite though not audible Voice say, “You take care of things on your side of the river and I’ll take care of things on this side of the river.” The “river” became a comforting metaphor.

About a decade ago I studied with Richard Rohr for three days in Albuquerque with a peer group. I was helped by Rohr’s focus on a non-dual, unitive view of the Universe and on the generosity of a radical, grace-based, inclusive hospitality.

Add some Borg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others I’ve mentioned, and you get a Jesus-flavored universality that includes all creation, rests entirely on unmerited favor, or grace, and sees reconciliation, relational justice and healing as inherent to cosmic union and eternal life–a great celebration.

From Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe, by Daniel Erlander

An emerging paradigm

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes “an earlier paradigm” of Christianity that typically viewed Christianity as the only true religion, which saw the Bible as a divine product to be interpreted literally, and which focused on believing, the afterlife and a life focused on requirements and rewards. From his mid-teens to his mid-thirties, “Christianity didn’t make much sense intellectually” and the faith he learned in childhood “ceased to be persuasive.”

However, Borg became convinced that “there are no serious intellectual threats to being Christian, and he rediscovered a life of faith “that makes persuasive and compelling sense of life in the broadest sense—a way of seeing reality and our lives in relationship to what is real; a way of seeing God, our relationship to God, and the path of transformation. The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect.”

He wrote the book to share his personal attraction to an “emerging paradigm” of faith that has been developing for over 100 years, “to communicate this way of seeing to those for whom an earlier understanding of Christianity makes little or no sense. They number is in the millions.”

In these two sentences, Borg describes the importance of this emerging paradigm: …the earlier paradigm uses the language of God’s grace and compassion and love, but its own internal logic turns being Christian into a life of requirements and rewards, thereby compromising the notion of grace. Indeed, it nullifies grace, for grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace.

From “Remembering Marcus Borg,” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice

They probably never even knew it

I saw my four college years at a state school as a gift–from parents, taxpayers and donors. Three years of seminary were made possible by donors, including a scholarship. Congregations I served during those years provided income. At my church-affiliated graduate school, tuition for the new quarter was posted at the student center for the Schools of Dentistry, Law, Medicine and Theology. The theology tuition was considerably less, which someone noted by writing on the announcement, “Jesus saves.”

Kyle Whitmire’s AL.com opinion piece (cited below) was for me further evidence that love is the energy of the universe, often expressed through our collective generosity (or willingness to pay taxes). From a faith perspective, it’s all grace. Our son, who sent me Whitmire’s article, has struggled with a disability for over a decade. He calls beneficence unmerited favor. By whatever name, it’s a gift to be graciously received and “paid forward” so others can enjoy the fruits of generosity.

Whitmire cited comments by some in Alabama’s Congressional delegation who criticized President Biden’s student loan action. Whitmire said in 1980, Alabama student tuition covered 27% of the cost of higher education. Today’s students pay over two-thirds of the cost. Tuition has risen 485%. State appropriations have risen 8%. Whitmire wrote: “Back then, you didn’t have to hope for a bailout on the backend. These guys got their subsidized schooling upfront, and they probably never even knew it.

From “The hidden subsidy behind those old ‘bootstrap’ students,” by Kyle Whitmire, AL.com, August 26, 2022

Sifting through the law for grace

In ecclesial times, theology students were first in university processionals. By 1976, the commencement procession was alphabetical. So, I was in one of Emory’s rear seats to hear Justice Harry Blackmun’s commencement speech. He is known also for writing the 1973 Roe v. Wade majority opinion.

Roe critics include Susan E. Wills’ “Ten Legal Reasons to Reject Roe” for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003, and Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson. Among Dobbs critics is Ian Millhiser, who wrote “The end of Roe v. Wade, explained,” in Vox.

Roe and Dobbs will be remembered as two markers on a long and winding road toward peace around healthcare for women who face a difficult and sometimes excruciating ethical decision. I concur with the United Methodist Social Principles and Stephanie York Arnold’s personal statement.

Here’s a bell hooks quote from All About Love, and Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Love heals. When we are wounded in the place where we would know love, it is difficult to imagine that love really has the power to change everything. No matter what has happened in our past, when we open our hearts to love we can live as if born again, not forgetting the past but seeing it in a new way, letting it live inside us in a new way. We go forward with the fresh insight that the past can no longer hurt us. Or if our past was one in which we were loved, we know that no matter the occasional presence of suffering in our lives we will return always to remembered calm and bliss. Mindful remembering lets us put the broken bits and pieces of our hearts together again. This is the way healing begins.

From “Jackie DeShannon’s ‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart,'” via YouTube

Critical Grace Theory (CGT)

For Judgment Day, I trust the law firm of Jesus, Gandhi, King and Lewis. They specialize in forgiveness, which I experience as grace. They knew systemic racism, but they lived with the vision of another realm that has the power to wash away every form of evil, leaving reconciliation and justice in its wake. And, get this: They work pro bono. The retainer has been paid.

The American Civil Rights movement–rooted in the biblical prophets, Jesus, Gandhi, and others–has given to people of every color (including–and maybe especially–white people) the greatest gift of all: forgiveness for our inhumanity. To be forgiven and to forgive others is the rhythm of grace.

Jesus walked to his crucifixion, Gandhi led a salt march, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a bus boycott, and John Lewis led a group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. These moments of courage were nonviolent acts of grace. Their world-changing witness was based on what I call Critical Grace Theory.

Grace is the basis for reconciling courage rooted in humility and love that brings justice and healing.

From “Congressman John Lewis Answers the Proust Questionnaire,” by Vanity Fair, December 6, 2019

A grievance reality check

I’ve never bought into the grievance thing. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe they (however defined) are out to replace me. But my fears are very different from the fears of the tiki-torch marchers in Charlottesville, the shooter in Charleston, the January 6 mob at the Capitol, and the Buffalo shooter.

There are legitimate grievances. Personally, I feel far more privilege than grievance. We white, European folk were the ones with the slave ships. We were the ones who replaced the natives of these parts by engineering a “trail of tears.” We children of immigrants tend to forget our roots.

I’ve heard warnings of a takeover by blacks, communists, or new immigrants. But, most of my troubles have been inflicted by the man I see in the mirror. The group we white males should fear most are the women folk. When they figure out that we’re the ones causing most of the trouble….

When I take a fearless moral inventory, grace far outweighs grievance. That’s my reality check.

From “Grievance politics is a dead-end road,” by Ryan Streeter, American Enterprise Institute, January 15, 2021

What are our healing icons of unity?

There’s a Confederate flag at my 2nd great grandfather‘s (1829-1880) Ancestry.com page. He enlisted in the 64th North Carolina infantry. He told his oldest son (1847-1934), my great grandfather, to help his mother and younger siblings with their mountain farm. My grandmother (1897-1995) said her pa hated “Linkern,” aka Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) because his pa left the family to fight in “Lincoln’s war.”

My grandmother didn’t hate Lincoln, or anyone. She was 42 when the Methodist Episcopal Church, the M.E. Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939. She had enough maternal instinct for her seven children and the whole town. In her sixties, as the local high school’s chief cook, she was widely considered another mother by the students. For me, she’s a healing icon of unity.

Division marks my family tree, my nation and my faith community. My favorite war icon is Appomattox, where grace met dignity. But the war isn’t over for everyone, which partly accounts for Donald Trump’s popularity. Eugene Robinson’s 6/11/2020 Washington Post column may be premature: “Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy.” There may yet be others.

From “Senate Chaplain reflects on Capitol attack, hopes for healing and unity in the aftermath,” by Michelle Marsh, WSET-TV (ABC7) February 25, 2021

Sadness+Grace=Compassion

After mentioning that healing can come through identifying, owning and embracing whatever sadness resides within us, several friends have mentioned sadness in their lives. As I allow myself to feel sadness, I’ve begun to sense our connection through this basic emotion.

If my sadness turns inward, it can be expressed through addiction or some other self-destructiveness. If I project my sadness onto others, it can be expressed through withdrawal, through passive/aggressive behavior, or through violence–verbal and/or physical.

Our social, political or faith responses to sadness may differ wildly, but the sadness underneath our differences can become a common bond when we can be gentle with ourselves and others. How can we creatively direct the grief, pain, or anger that flows from our sadness?

Is grace–a basic gentleness in the face of life’s struggles–the critical ingredient that moves our sadness toward compassion? I think so. What do you think?

From “What Does It Mean to ‘Be Gentle With Yourself’?” by Jolissa Skow, Still Mothers, July 10, 2017

The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle put the term in our vocabulary. She gave us the context for the social, political and religious events that are unfolding around us. Faith is now less connectional and more congregational. Most local parishes are increasingly more socially homogeneous and more politically predictable.

When “red states” and “blue states” became widely used, a friend said, “I hope we don’t have “red churches” and “blue churches.” It’s happening. In the short term, faith tends to mirror society, but in the long term, faith ultimately bends the arc of history toward grace (inclusiveness) and love (justice).

It’s painful short term, but clarifying long term. On Sunday, a large congregation will “vote on a proposal … to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.” Their “Executive Team, Executive Board, and Administrative Board have all voted unanimously to move forward with the separation.” Now, “every professing member will now have that same opportunity” to vote.

“If the disaffiliation vote is passed” they “will then begin the next steps to officially separate from the UMC and join a network of like-minded Wesleyan large churches.” They will “uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline … for the next six months, or until (they) can develop (their) our own document of Faith and Practices.”

From Phyllis Tickle’s website