Grace: a theological exploration part 2

What happens when our conception of God fundamentally changes? 

In the time of Jesus calling God “Dad” was radical, or at least we think it was radical for the time. To be honest about the research we cannot really tell if it was shocking or not.

It is not a normal title for God in Hebrew literature, but it was not completely unheard of either. 

The unique thing about the title of “Dad” is that it is a keystone to the whole arch of Jesus’ teaching. His concept of Dad was compassionate, loving, merciful, and quick to forgive. Both the gospels and letters teach that part of that teaching is that we are God’s children, or we can be.

Jesus is God’s son, that is undisputed by anyone in the Christian faith. It is a pillar of doctrine. You are in or out of the definition of being a Christian based simply on the answer to that question of belief, among a very few others. 

Leaving behind for a moment what that means to classical theology, in the Hebrew tradition it meant that Jesus would have the character of God. The same way that when my father says, “Boy, you are your mother’s son,” what he means is that I have some characteristic of my mother, like stubbornness, for example. 

Jesus has God’s character. This is an aspect of what we call incarnation in theology. Jesus makes “carne” or meaty what God is in spirit. This notion that Jesus embodies God is another key theological idea that lies at the center of Christian thought. But at the least it means that Jesus has God’s character.

In the prologue of the Gospel of John we are told that because of the Logos we are capable of becoming children of God, not through the desire of a man or the strength or will but through the abiding of the Holy Spirit. This is right up front in the gospel, literally and literarily. We become children of God as we abide in his Spirit and as his Spirit abides in us.

We are to take on his character, just as Jesus had God’s character. The logic of this is ironclad, and once you see it, you see it throughout the New Testament. 

Therefore if grace is God’s character, then we are to have grace. We are to give freely forgiveness, things, provision, love. This is all in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also the consistent message throughout the text, stated in different ways. 

Think seriously about that for a moment. We are supposed to be a people of grace if we are God’s people, Jesus’s disciples, embodying the Holy Spirit. We are to be generous, forgiving, merciful, and loving. 

If you know real Christians, you know people like this. 

The question before us is “How do we shape a people like this?”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his staff have produced a Way of Love curricula that locates this in a series of practices. I have taught and written about this very thing throughout this blog and my churches. This is the question of our times.

How do we become a people of the Way? 

The Rule of Grace is one way to put the process, as you will find with a search of this sight. It is the way we inculcate a people of the transaction into the way of Christ. 

It begins with knowing God and continues with loving.

Keeping the Office: Spirit, Soul, Balance, and Coyotes

Run. Lift. Run. Lift. Run. Yoga? Run. Box. Lift. Staying in shape takes discipline and variation. My preference is long bouts of running (trails on the menu tonight) mixed with heavy lifting and boxing work on a heavy bag. If that sounds like a lot you can comfort yourself knowing that it all gets spread out by life.

In the Episcopal Church we are shaped by prayer in a four-fold practice that is deeply rooted in the Benedictine practice of the Catholic Church of the west. One of the current losses in the Episcopal tradition is the focus only on the Eucharistic and sacramental practices to the exclusion of everything else. In reality we are shaped equally by the Daily Office, prayer of the heart, and Lectio Divina.

Each of these types of prayer has its own place in a healthy, balanced life. The Eucharist has taken on the dominant role since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved it to the center of the weekly gathering and moved from being a devotional guide for regular practice to the being a sourcebook for liturgy. This description by the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain in a staff conversation rings with my own experience. The options that are available to offer variety in the services of Eucharist are distracting in the Daily Office.

The Daily Office is a condensed version of the monastic hours of the Benedictine tradition. The Opus Dei, work of God, of Benedict’s Rule is the monks’ lifting up the continuous praise of the church hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I am reminded of this every time I settle into retreat. The Office is our secular lifting up of that praise. It is continuous and faithful, and decidedly not consumerist.

The praise of the church, rooted in the praise of all creation, is going to go on with or without us joining in. We join in to be a part of God’s reign of peace and grace. We are changed by being a part of that work as a fire purifies metal.

The loss of the Office is then a loss of transformation in the particular way that being a part of something larger than ourselves changes us.

It is useful to offer a splitting of hairs between Spirit and soul at this point. In my anthropology I understand the spirit of a person to be reflective of and part of the Spirit of God, the God-breath that animates us and gives us consciousness, being, and life. But that part of us is not individualized but is universal. Those things we call “spiritual” all have reliable components of light, higher sensibilities, goodness.

The soul, on the other hand, is the part of us that is unique. It has a sense of the quirky, individual, and rootedness. To say that something is soulful is to say it is rooted in the person in a different way than the Spirit. Anything that is of the soul should be good, but may not be.

The Spirit of God is our breath in some way that makes us human. It is what gives us our unique vocation as a species to care for the creation, each other, and to worship God. The soul is the unique person that God has made us to be. They are inseparable, but they are different from each other.

A person needs to develop in both. As a spiritual person, the Office offers growth in the ways of God joining into the praise, light, and offering of the church universal. But we have all known people who are deeply spiritual but seem not to have developed the unique voice and depth of rootedness of the soul.

The Office is not enough by itself. The prayer of the heart is that extemporaneous conversation with God that fills our days and dreams. It should be unique, quirky, free. It is the Spirit breathing in our spirit to lift us what God will within us. We might call it the prayer of the soul. It seems easiest for some people, and in some versions of faith it is the only form of prayer that is taught or valued.

But on the other hand, we have also known people who are rooted in their individuality but are not connected to what is good, light. They have gone into the shadow without light and have even at times become a shade, a ghost of a human being. Evil is possible without ongoing connection to the Spirit when the personal good becomes the only good; just a surely the universal good can devalue the individual to the point of evil as well.

We need all four kinds of prayer in order to be whole. The poles we have drawn here between Office and prayer of the soul are matched by other polarities between each and Eucharist and Lectio.

Focussing on the Office, the universal nature of the Office should be balanced by the communal gathering around Jesus in the Eucharist. The communion service should be shaped by the people who are gathered in a way that the Office is not. And Lectio, the practice of divine reading is meant as a kind of whole self entering into the Bible, a meta-study, that is very different in intent and outcome than the reading of the Bible in the Office.

All of this forms a whole practice of prayer. The Office may be the queen of the practice in the Anglican past, but the Eucharist has taken over in these last few decades, and I am not sure that we are in better shape.

Yesterday I was deadlifting, tonight I will put in a few miles in the darkened mountains with javelinas and coyotes. But neither of these is the point.

Health and strength are for life. They are for wrestling with my kids and carrying groceries and kneeling in prayer without weariness.

The Office and all the rest is not the point either, but the relationship with God that forms us as heirs of the Reign of God, children of Abba, siblings to the Christ who saves us, and temple to the Holy Spirit.

Tonight I will run among the mountains and my beloved coyotes that trot along the golden sunlight shafts dancing their last purpling dances of the day in hills of palo verde and red clay. There is joy along the way for the beauty of the voices and laughter of children and the same golden hues turned light on the marble before the table of God.