Monday, July 09, 2012

pnwqwtc: contemplating grace, part 2

Here is part 2 of the talk I gave at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference last month. If you missed them, check out my posts on my experience at the conference and part 1 of my talk (which covers my kind of intuitive understanding of grace and some of the negative ways we interpret grace in traditional Christian theology). Below I discuss the terms used for "grace" in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and also a bit of an explanation as to why I find the Bible helpful in thinking about Quaker theology and matters of faith, since Quakers at the conference hold differing views on the Bible and its worth. Soon I will post part 3 of my talk, which focuses on the idea of contemplating grace. Why would we contemplate it? What might that look like? What might happen if we contemplate grace? You can look forward to some scientific studies in that one, but for now, here is part 2, which discusses the more complete meanings of the words for "grace" and my view on why the Bible is important and useful in such discussions.

I decided to do word studies on the words we translate as “grace” in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, because I had the inkling that the more stereotypical understanding of “grace” that sometimes comes across when we talk about God’s grace isn’t as full as it was meant to be. Now, I’m pretty sure that there are as many understandings of and feelings about the Bible in this room as there are people, so I wanted to explain a bit about why this is important to me. For me, the Bible is a record of how God has worked in and through people across time—it shows people’s struggles and successes as they work to hear and follow God. It’s a community of which I am still a part, a community of some like-minded people across time, though I wouldn’t say I resonate with all of them. But, at least for me, it’s a starting place. It’s a place where I can meet God by seeing this struggle for people to put their experiences and desires and spiritual connectedness into words. I personally struggle with the balance between laws and freedom, and I see that struggle all through the Bible. How can we be a safe, connected community attending to the present, living God? Where is the center? How do we make sure we’re all going in the same direction? What do we need to prescribe, and what limits our ability to respond to the spontaneity of the Spirit? I think these are probably questions that affect our meetings, and definitely have affected our divisions as Friends. I think they also have to do with grace: in what ways is God gracious, and in what ways is God judging, merciful, righteous, holy, and all those things we attribute to God? In what ways are we to be gracious to each other, and to ourselves? What's the difference between being gracious and being taken advantage of? At what point do we take a stand against something that seems to go against our understanding of the Inner Light, and at what point do we trust that God is speaking through someone else inwardly on a matter we thought we heard God speak differently?

So the Bible is important to me as I see people struggling to answer these questions with God and as communities across time. This is why I wanted to do a word study on the words we translate as “grace” in Greek and Hebrew. Like I said before, part of “contemplating” for me is studying. I find God a lot through research and really digging into questions I have, seeking and processing. I wanted to understand what people meant in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when they talked about grace, perhaps before we loaded a whole bunch of theological baggage on the term.

Without further ado, the word studies! The Hebrew words we sometimes translate “grace” are hanan and hesed. Hanan most often means “to show favor,” and people in the Bible often ask God to show them favor, as in, “Be gracious with me, O God!” It’s usually coupled with mercy, and often has a sense of motherly compassion. We can’t merit this grace, but we can expect that God will show it to the poor and oppressed—and won’t grant favor on us if we’re not a friend to the poor and oppressed.

Hesed is a really interesting term. Its basic meaning is “to do good.” It’s the grace of enacting goodness toward another. It’s reciprocal, but not in an obligatory way. It’s a good action that draws out goodness in the other. God shows us this kind of grace and we can’t help but respond with enacting grace toward others—not because we have to but because it just flows out of us. It’s not a legal word. We’re not REQUIRED to reciprocate it, and we can’t do anything to merit it. It’s a word that requires relationship. When we’re in a true relationship, hesed happens. Hesed is active, social and enduring. It’s not something that we get and we’re done with it, but it’s an action that happens between people, or between people and God (or I suppose between people and other created things), and it flows on and on because of the reciprocal nature of it. Hesed seems to encompass what this conference is talking about when we imagine “inviting, contemplating and enacting” grace. It includes each of those steps.

So that's the understanding of grace that was going on as the Jewish Scriptures were written, though they (as we) always had a difficult time actually living it out. Then Jesus comes along and actually enacts this idea of hesed. He invites his followers into relationship with a God who is so close, God is their parent—they’re (we’re) adopted into God’s family. This relationship is so good, so unmerited, so joy-filled that we can’t help but reciprocate and pass this grace along into the world, enacting hesed especially toward the poor, the outcasts, those who feel lost or unlovable.

The Greek word that early Christ-followers used to describe this kind of grace is charis, and it is integrally connected to the words chara: joy, charismata: gifts of the Spirit, and eucharisteo: giving thanks (later formalized into the Eucharist, the sharing of the body and blood of Jesus in the act of communion). Early Christ-followers saw God’s grace in the life (and especially the death) of Jesus: God dwelling with us, suffering with us, dying because of our inability to let go of our desire for power, wealth, glory, etc., and showing us that God’s grace—God’s goodwill toward us and God’s stubborn desire to give us good gifts—cannot even be stopped by death. God isn't a blood-thirsty God of capricious anger, holding us accountable for sins we are born into and can't avoid. Instead, God is a Being who knows us completely--knows that our curiosity and stupidity, selfishness and fear often get the better of us--and yet, God still loves us and extends every grace to us. We can accept this grace and live into it and in so doing, be drawn into this reciprocal cycle of love, grace and release from fear of death, or we can continue in our stubborn way of wanting to do everything on our own, getting stuck in the well-documented cycle of violence against ourselves and others. Jesus' death shows us those two choices. Those who killed Jesus (and they could have been any of us, had we lived there and then!) show the fear of losing power and control, the fear of a truly equal society, the fear of there being not enough so I have to hold onto what I can for me and mine. Jesus shows us the grace of God: in Jesus' incarnation as God's self in the flesh, we see a God who understands the human propensity to turn away from God and grasp at power, and we see God's love in the face of that. We see a God who accepts that about us, but doesn't allow it to be the last word. God extends us the offer of freedom from fear, even beyond death.

The Greek concept of grace is all bound up with joy, gratefulness and the receiving of good gifts, even though we don’t deserve them in the slightest. This connects with the concept of hesed, because it’s out of this space of joy, out of our gratitude for this unmerited love and abundance being poured out on us, that we can live graciously in the world. Hesed includes justice and mercy and righteousness. It isn’t an empty or paternalistic gift, but a joy-filled freedom to love with abandon, without fear of there not being enough, because we’ve experienced that there’s always more. There’s always more grace on its way, and we can rest in that.

For today, I'll leave you with a few thoughts on our understanding of "enough." In the last year we've heard about (and perhaps participated in) the Occupy movements going on all over the United States. We hear about the 99% vs. the 1%--the wealthiest portion of our nation holding a majority of the goods. Most of you reading this are presumably part of the 99% in the United States. This is a movement that wants to redistribute access to wealth, because we're afraid there isn't enough to go around--and because there truly ISN'T enough to go around when the top 1% hold such a disproportionate amount of the wealth. And yet, we must look at this again, from a larger perspective. My family makes about 1.5 times the poverty rate in the United States, so we aren't rich by American standards, and yet our income level puts us in the top 4% of the wealthiest people worldwide. Check how you rate here.

As we contemplate grace, I think we must contemplate our own fear of not having enough, and I think this is ultimately a fear of death and suffering. My understanding of grace, after doing these word studies, is that God's grace fills us with joy and invites us into a community so profound and so good and truth-filled that we can't help but live mercy coupled with justice out into the world. We give thanks for God's abundance, and it spills over into the world around us.

How might we, as Friends, live into this grace more fully?