Lenten Graces–Second Sunday in Lent

“If Abraham, by what he did for God, got Got to approve him, he could have certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”  ~Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993) Romans 4:1-5

It seems exceedingly difficult, this text. There is the message that there is some inherent goodness in our being who we are over and above all of our anxious human doing. (It must an important lesson, we read it over and over throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis.)

It seems nearly impossible to those of us living in a consumer-driven commercial world. This notion that you can not do anything to earn all of what God has to offer. It’s an affront to American culture and a reversal of the American Dream.

We can do nothing for God’s approval, nothing to gain merit or entrance into the Kindom* of God. Paul is commenting on that old struggle between works and grace.

It is a difficult text, but an important one as we move through the Lenten season reflecting on how we long for a deeper connection with God. As we give up the barriers to our spiritual life, give up our creature comforts, or as we take up practices we hope will enable us to walk closer to God’s will, we are very much consumed with the  doing aspect of living out this text.

There is something about grace which the post-modern world seems intent on annihilating. We are told if we work hard we will have all we need; that has not been true since 2009 and possibly before. The idea that we get the material goods we deserve based on our hard work in the world is roughly equivalent to the 1980’s notion that neon colors were fashionable. 

The NRSV words verses 2 and 4 as  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”**  Here, Paul seems to come down squarely on the side of grace.

Paul’s teaching in this text brings memory to my mind many of persons I interacted with as a hospice chaplain. At some point in life we all reach the stage where the most we can do is simply exist. [This is particularly true for persons with dementia and the other brain disorders associated with aging.] At some point in our adult lives we may need others to feed, bathe, and clothe us just as we did at life’s beginning. Being is a form of Grace. Being as Paul reminds us is all God asks of us is to do. Some religious and mystical traditions insist that there are spiritual lessons which can only be learned in the later stages of life. I know that as I spent time with persons who had become too ill to care for themselves towards life’s end, I learned that how they continued to interact and how they continued to teach others was through a subtle way of being who they were as they were in the world. It is a way of being that trusts and relies on God.

This way of being ourselves and being in the world as we find it is a type of trust and type of remembering that in the end it’s not about us. There is certainly our part, but in the end it is God’s story. Perhaps being us enough to discern God’s story from our own is the ultimate Lenten practice. Learning to accept grace~practice that.

*”Kindom” is a well-known feminist respelling of Kingdom designed to highlight the mutual relationships in the Kingdom of God rather than the hierarchical relationships of the patriarchal system; see the work of A. Isasi-Diaz and Rosemary Reuther.

**from http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+4 [on-line] accessed, March 15, 2014.

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“Run Free”?–An Ontological Question

Sunday morning in church the choir sang an amazing anthem. One line of that anthem stuck out to me and has left me pondering since the service went like this “…the lame will run free”. The anthem was speaking about the world as if settled in the Kindom* of God. The image of the lame walking is a standard image found in the Biblical narrative. It is not so much a literal image as it is one of the metaphorical images used to depict the the Kindom of God where right relationships are restored and persons are liberated to be who God made them to be. An image used to show that the Kindom is real and here on earth.

The line from the anthem stands out to me because this making the “lame” to “walk” has theological implications of personhood and ontological implications of our identities in the afterlife. Its a question I hear only quietly asked between friends, even within the disability community. It is not so much an opposition to the metaphorical image of making the blind to see or the lame to walk being symbolic of the Kindom of God, for of course there is an expectation that the Kindom of God will bring many things that we can not now imagine and that there with be a wholeness of identity and personhood that is beyond our mortal understanding . But between friends in the disability community, I have yet to met one persons who thinks or wants to arrive in the Kindom of God “cured” and without their impairments. No, my friends are not in need of psychological assistance, on the contrary most are clergy and have passed psychological background testing and others whom I have had this conversation with are PhDs. This issue here is not what the Kindom of God brings or does not bring, it is not an issue of God’s power needing to be made manifest, the issue is ontological individual identity.

“Of course I will have disability in the Kingdom of God!” I have a clear memory of a friend proclaiming this to me. It was not a denial of all things being made new in God , but an assertion that the identity that God created in her was GOOD (see Genesis)! The identity of people with disabilities  is what often gets misunderstood when we toss around ideas of the mute persons talking, the blind man seeing, and the woman with a limp suddenly having none.

As human beings we are embodied beings. Just as Jesus came to know the world by becoming incarnate, we come to know the world, build relationships with others, and come to know and understand God through our experience of being in our bodies. It is hard to deny that our bodies impact our identities. Look at how the theory, theology, and lived experience of the GLBTQI movement over the last twenty years has demonstrated how our experiences of embodiment impact our identities. It would be impossible for me to know how not growing up being ridiculed and bullied for having a speech impediment, physical slowness, and poor balance would have impacted my identity. Do I, personally, think I  will have a speech impediment and poor balance in the Kindom of God? No, actually I think in the Kindom of God I have a voice, power of communication, and poise that actually compels others to listen to me–because that would the topsy-turvy righting of relationship found in God’s Kindom. As a person who has lived with chronic pain, do I believe I will have pain for eternity? No I do not. ButI do think my experience has taught me that human beings have limits; that is not necessary or even desirable to be able to anything one wants at anytime. I have learned humility, and grace, patience and perseverance. Pain is a teacher and gaining  experience in how to learn from subtle experiences is something that offers profound spiritual lessons. They are not lessons about have speech impediments nor are they lessons about pain. They are lessons about getting to know oneself in relation to self, others, and God.

So I am left wondering who is going to “run free”? And why? Is it something within their personality that leads them to want or need to “run free”? Or are we finally going be able to “run” as we are without the judgement of others suggesting that we need to run, even though that may be uncomfortable for us. (Please don’t make me think about school “Field Days”, as I would consider those days to be one of Dante’s many circles of Hell.) For some of us, people with disabilities, the metaphors of the Kindom of God maybe what they are—we can’t change the scriptures, and its beautiful poetry so why would we want to? But why are the people with disabilities the only ones who have to be “transformed” to fit into the Kindom? For myself, and others with disability, it is more of an ontological question. God made me this way, and it is Good. Given the nature of my ontological being as a person with disability; given the fact that my personal identity is defined by experiences of disability, to what degree to I fit the “normalcy” of others in the Kindom of God? Why do I need to run, when I am already free?

* “Kindom” is not a misspelling of Kingdom, but an intentional feminist interpretation of the Kindom of God where equality exist between people living together as God intends