[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
I’ve joked for years about being a closet Lutheran–joked about it for so long, in fact, I can’t remember when I first started doing it. I know it wasn’t because one day I read and found myself converted to the Lutheran Book of Concord or any such thing (though over the decades I have read and found myself agreeing with its contents a whole lot more than I disagree). It may go way back t my childhood, back to reading scriptures like Matthew 18:7, in the King James Version: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (A nearly identical passage can be found in Luke 17:1.) There was a terrible, yet comforting, logic to those passages as I understood them, so long ago: first, that this will be world of offenses, of horrors, of hardness, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it–and second, that God will still hold by whom those offenses, those horrors, that hardness comes accountable. This was a God, I thought, with whom you can know where you stand.
The KJV reading of those scriptures isn’t the best, I know that now. Those passages actually show Jesus speaking specifically about those who create temptations or stumbling blocks to faith in the hearts of others; He wasn’t speaking of the brokenness of the world in general, much less morally situating all of us in regards to it. But learning a better reading of those scriptures never altered, I think, my sense that the KJV version really captured so much of what Paul supposedly wrote–and which, much later, Augustine and then Martin Luther would teach about as well. What is that teaching? It is about sin, about its omnipresence, about the way it infects and twists our every perception and action, and the fact that we are called to somehow love one another in the midst of it. We will fail, of course, and stand condemned for that failure–but God by His grace will also save us in that failure and condemnation. The experience of that grace in such a context isn’t an experience of lightness; it is, rather, hard. It is something that, all things considered, we would rather have not needed in the first place. But need it, I think, we actually, most assuredly, do.
Here, on the last day of 2015, I look back on a year and see a lot of this kind of difficult grace, this kind of hard love. Maybe you’ve seen a lot of it as well–hard decisions about the saving or ending of weak and desperate lives, about the rescuing or fleeing of marriages, about opening oneself up to and learning to love a stranger in need or shutting out and accepting the hurt done to a loved one who has become a stranger to you. Whatever your experiences have been, I suspect you feel divided about them, just as I do. I’d be lying if I talked about how “grateful” I am for them, because I’m not: rather, as Frodo confessed to Gandalf, I wish these things “need not have happened in my time.” But I’d also be lying if I pretended not to recognize the wisdom of Gandalf’s reply: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I look around, and I see offenses of every sort–intentional and unintentional, against loved ones and strangers, against adults and children. I would rather I was free of all of it, just as everyone does. And yet, sometimes I really am kind of happy for that hardness–because, if nothing else, it helps me (and others, all of whom need it just as much as me) see the difficult grace around us better than we could in a world wherein offenses and evils and complications did not come.
Martin Luther, speaking as a Christian prophet should, put it well: “This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way; the process is not yet finished, but it has begun; this is not the goal, but it is the road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified” (Luther, A Defense and Explanation of All Articles). That purity, as so many have put it, will hurt. Chosen or not, we stand here as God’s children, committed to it. So here’s to God’s long and difficult love, a love which comes slowly and inevitably through and I think necessarily as a part of the brokenness and condemnation and failures of these lives we live. And let’s wake up tomorrow, with the new year, and keep on keeping on.