The Taser's Edge

Grace is: God is Here

(With apologies to a misuse of colons which looks neat, this is a weekly reflection for CPE)

A Theology of Grace

            My tendency when talking about grace is to quickly shift into law.  That is, I start thinking about the wonderful and joyful springs of grace in God, and something in me immediately argues back, Yes, but there’s that law part, too.  I didn’t have a name for how my family of origin (and at least a generation before my immediate family) does Christianity until I took Church History II at Duke.  It’s called Pietism.  But I had experienced it through United Methodism as well.  John Wesley called it Christian Perfection.  And I honestly believe that the pursuit of Christian Perfection has contributed to my mental illness.  It’s part of the reason I left the United Methodist Church.  It’s part of the reason I left for a sacramental tradition.

            To me, sacramental Christianity is real Christianity.  Sacramentally centered worship, even in its basic pattern, proclaims that God is with us (literally, Immanuel is on the table before us and then in our hands and then in our mouths), that God comes to us, and that neither the holiness of the priest/pastor, nor the holiness of the people has anything to do with it.  Each Sunday at Anglican churches around the world, the last communal prayer before receiving the Eucharist is some version of

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

            Such a prayer echoes the Catholic liturgy’s “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” (from Matt. 8:8) and stands in direct opposition to many of our popular understandings of the “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” spirituality I grew up with.

            Let me lift up the line, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body.”  The most recent version of the American Book of Common Prayer does not contain that line, but it’s important to knowing grace, and it’s gone because of our discomfort with the Incarnation.  Grace is about bodies.  God’s grace is not for my disembodied spirit but for me, an earthy body; and God’s grace is not for the Sweet Hereafter but for now.  Grace is bodies.  Jesus’ body primarily, in the Eucharist.  But then the way that I offer my body to those whom I serve.  And the way that other people’s bodies become Jesus and offer grace to me.

            I think about bodies, and I start to think of clay.  God got Adam under God’s fingernails.  This means dirt is not ‘dirty’ as we use it—synonymous with ‘guilty’ or ‘ashamed.’  ‘Dirty’ means filled with grace.  ‘Soiled’ (from ‘soil’) means holy.  ‘Earthy’ (referring to still more dirt) is what we are called to be because God is eternally earthy in Jesus.

            So what is grace?  Grace is: God is here.

            I need to pursue this further.  Where is grace when I wake up?  Where is grace on the bike or car ride?  Where is grace in the badge-in?  Where is grace in the men’s bathroom shower?  Where is grace in needing caffeine?  Where is grace in the hospital?  Where is grace when I pray?  When I am ‘pious’?  When I kick my own soul and condemn me?  God is here.  Grace is: God is here.

 Readings Week of September 21, 2009

Selections from Matthew 1-13 (Ancient Christian Commentary series)

Selections from Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary) by Stanley Hauerwas

Selections from The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen

The Minister as Crisis Counselor by David K. Switzer, pp. 102-210