Wednesday, June 27, 2012

pnwqwtc: contemplating grace, part 1

I shared about my experience at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference in a post last week. I got to be one of the plenary speakers, so I'm going to post in three parts what I said, and a somewhat expanded version of what I wanted to say but for which I didn't have time. The topic I was given was "Contemplating Grace," as a section of the overall conference theme "Living in the Life & Power: Inviting, Contemplating & Enacting Grace." My overall desire was to help us think about the concept of grace a little bit--what does it mean to us intuitively? What baggage do we carry around this word? What did the biblical authors mean by it? Why and how would we go about "contemplating" grace, and what would this do in the world? I started off with some background information about myself and my intuitive understanding of what grace is--and is NOT. Then I went into a word study of the Hebrew and Greek terms for grace, and I finished off with some scientific (and some quasi-scientific) research on mindfulness meditation and similar topics as a little window into what it might do in the world when we "hold someone in the Light" or spend time contemplating grace in various ways.

Today I'll post the first section on my experiential understanding of grace.

Our topic for this morning is “Contemplating Grace,” and as you might imagine, I’ve been “contemplating grace” for several months leading up to this conference, mulling over what the Spirit is forming in my heart and mind to bring to you this morning. Now for me, “contemplating” pretty much necessarily includes a good deal of study—asking questions, researching, reading, discussing—and then chewing on all those things, looking for the nuggets of truth that rise to the surface (to mix a few metaphors there). So one of my first thoughts was, “What exactly do we mean by ‘grace’?” We kind of throw this word around, and it has several meanings in English, if you think about it—it’s a verb, it’s a noun, it can mean saying “grace” before a meal or a dancer who moves with grace or, more to the point here, a specific saving act of the Christian God or something to do with the notions of leniency and forgiveness. Another question came to me: “How and why would we contemplate grace?” A flood of further questions flowed from there. Do we just sit around thinking about nice things? How is the phase of “contemplating grace” different from inviting it or enacting it? As Friends, what is our understanding of grace, and how does our form of contemplation help or hinder us in the process of contemplating grace?

So this morning I’m going to start by tackling what we mean by “grace,” then add in the contemplative part. We’re going to look at everyday grace as I’ve noticed it in my life, then some word studies from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and then we’ll look at some recent research on contemplative topics. Finally, we’ll finish with some thoughts about what all this means for me personally and for us as a community of Friends.

I want to start by sharing a little bit about myself and the forms of grace I encounter each day. I grew up a Quaker in Northwest Yearly Meeting and have found the grace of a family and home here. That doesn’t mean that everything is easy or pleasant here, but that I have a sense of connection and love, of rootedness and joy in the best of times, and at times a painful sense of disagreement with those I love and a difficult pull between wanting to please and wanting to have integrity about the truth I sense. In addition to this spiritual family, I’ve also built a literal family here in the Northwest. Here’s a picture of my family—Joel and I have been married almost 11 years, and that’s a grace in itself, since I come from a family of divorced parents and since relationships are never easy. I am so grateful for the grace of a life partner who’s just as stubborn as I, who will never give up on me, and who will wrestle through the hard times right alongside me. We have two boys—E is 5 and K is 18 months. I experience grace through each of them so often. K is a little love. He gives excellent hugs, throwing his little arms around virtually anyone’s neck and giving them a long, solid squeeze. I see people light up every day from the love he shares with abandon, and I desire to be that kind of person, too. E sees things going on around him and wants to help. We saw a homeless person last year and E wanted to know what we were going to do to help. We had a conversation about it, and eventually we decided to host a lemonade stand to raise money for a homeless shelter in town.

I see these small graces in the lives of those I’m closest to, though I often feel like it’s difficult to extend grace to myself, because I have high expectations for myself regarding living with integrity. But more on that later. So I have these glimpses of grace in my life and kind of an intuitive understanding of the concept of “grace” that incorporates beauty, extending more to others than is required and a gratefulness that I get to see these things and participate in them. But this isn’t a deep enough answer to me about what we really mean when we talk about “grace,” especially in a religious context. In one way, “grace” from God seems like a loaded concept, reminding us that we NEED grace (or reminding us that those who try to convince us of this theology SAY we need grace), that the world isn’t perfect, that I “sin” (whatever that is)—sometimes it feels like this sort of resigned God who is sitting around, sighing, saying, “OK, I’ll forgive you again. Here’s some more grace, since you obviously need it.” I guess what I’m saying is that when I look at the grace I see in the lives of those around me compared to my archetypal understanding of “grace” in a religious setting, I get two rather different pictures.

The problem with the way we often talk about grace in Christianity is that it almost feels like we first have to feel guilt and shame in order to receive grace. The problem with that is that grace is a free gift. I don't have to do ANYTHING--even feel guilty--in order to receive it. It's just offered to me. It’s just so abundantly above and beyond anything I can ever feel like I deserve that it feels like grace regardless of whether I feel guilty or ashamed.

The problem comes in because we think that in order to understand God’s grace, we have to think of ourselves as utterly depraved. I have a really hard time with the concept of complete human depravity. I don’t think it’s in the Bible. Yes, we’re all “sinners,” in that we all choose to walk away from God at various points in our lives (OK, every day, if you're anything like me), but I don’t think we’re at heart completely evil. It seems like Friends have generally had a fairly optimistic view of human nature: there is that of God in each of us—we’re created in the image of God. God speaks to and through each person. Everyone has the chance to respond to God.

When I was at a Reformed seminary I just could never get on board with this idea of complete human depravity, and I realized this optimism isn’t necessarily common to all Christians.  But I feel like we still have a tendency to get stuck there in this idea that we’re so evil that God had to come save us—or worse, that Jesus the Son had to come save us from God, the angry child-abusing capricious Father-deity who was willing to watch his own son die. We heap guilt on ourselves, but this distances us from God in an unhealthy way. Why should I be grateful for the grace of this God? This isn’t grace. It’s a fear-tactic. It’s holding something scary over our heads until we buckle under the pressure of our own depravity and plead with him to not be thrown in a lake of fire.  This is not the kind of grace we see in the Bible, if we really look.

The overarching theme of the Bible pictures a God who comes to people again and again to build relationship. People draw together as a community, struggling to figure out what it looks like to live in right relationship with God and each other. They make laws to try to codify what the perfect community would look like, but that doesn’t work so well. They notice that the really important part of faith is breaking down the systems (that always seem to crop up) that benefit the powerful by taking advantage of the poor or disadvantaged. Over and over again we see, starting with the law of Moses, that people are instructed to do what is right by the lowest in their society: the widows, the orphans, the foreigners. This is how their commitment to their faith is to be measured.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3: a word study on the Greek and Hebrew terms for "grace" and some of the scientific research that relates to the topic of "contemplating grace."


Anonymous said...

I'm happy you're posting your remarks on grace, Cherice. We started examining grace in our adult Sunday School class, recently. I am thoroughly enjoying it. What you wrote about relationship, shame, and fear are understandings that have come into very clear focus for me as I study grace. I am finding new joy and expectation in my relationship with Christ.
Barbara D.

Ralph said...

I appreciate your understanding of grace, Cherice. One thing that stands out to me is your perspective on human depravity. I grew up with a rather dark view of this, but have come to see Jesus as a loving Savior who stands out above the dark part of human nature.

Gr. Ralph