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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Art of Remembering

In this country we find ourselves at Memorial Weekend.  Clearly, the description of the weekend is unambiguous: memorial means remembering.  It is the “Remembering Weekend.”  There will be parades to highlight the festivities.  The little parade in my suburban town is so quaint and tiny, it is hilarious.  Of course, there are the boy scouts and girl scouts.  There are all the Little League baseball and softball players.  The fire trucks gain attention because the siren going off in your ears at a distance of 15 feet is dramatic!  And finally, there are always the politicians!

The other thing that is a staple for Memorial Weekend is the visit to the cemetery.  Now that I am living in a much larger, urban context, I am less aware of folks going to the cemetery.  When I was a kid, I did not really understand this ritual.  No one significant in my life had died.  There was no one “living in the cemetery,” as I once put it, that I felt like I wanted to visit.

But when my grandparents began to die---one by one---I had a dawning sense of why my parents and others always wanted to go to the cemetery.  Of course, it was true that an annual visit was not the sole guarantee of “remembering” them.  I was aware my parents stopped by the cemetery on other occasions, too.  But somehow, Memorial Weekend was special, much like Christmas was special, but one still went to church other Sundays, too.

I like history, so it was fun to begin to learn something of the origins and history of the holiday.  It seems our own Civil War (1861-1865) formed the soil for the Memorial Day seeds.  That is not surprising.  That gruesome war left death, mourning, and the need to remember scattered all over our land.

The official Memorial Day proclamation occurred on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It commenced with the laying of wreaths on graves of soldiers of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  Well before the end of the 19th century all the northern states recognized this holiday.  What I was surprised to learn was the southern states refused to recognize this end-of-May memorial until after WW I when the focus of the holiday shifted from Civil War dead to the deceased from all wars.  Such formed the holiday which we celebrate this weekend.

As an American, I am happy to remember with appreciation all those women and men who have died for this country.  And I also remember the large number of them who suffered in so many ways.  The war that formed my own generation---the Vietnam War---still scars countless folks. 

I won’t go to the cemetery this weekend.  Most of my deceased family and close friends “live” in a couple different cemeteries back in Indiana.  To make that drive merely to stand physically at the graveside is not necessary.  What I will choose to do is take a little time by myself and “remember.”  The human capacity to remember dazzles me!  As St. Augustine said centuries ago, remembering is the human way to hold the past in the present.  So I will celebrate my Memorial Weekend.

I am also glad that the Weekend has expanded to include more than the war dead.  The key is “more.”  If we include all who have preceded us in death, we do not do less honor to the war dead.  They will always have a special place in this weekend’s art of remembering.

The inclusiveness of all deceased folks makes perfect sense spiritually speaking.  Finally, we are all in it together---all humanity is implicated by death.  Some have already died; the rest of us are in process.  What so many of us hope is somehow our lives---our ordinary, quiet, little lives---finally have meaning and the meaning will be remembered and celebrated.  But that remembering and celebrating has to be done by someone else when we are dead!

And that’s one of the points of spirituality.  When my own process of dying is complete (and I am dead), I take solace in the fact that God is the Other Who is very practiced in the art of remembering.  And it won’t happen just annually; it will happen eternally….whatever kind of Memorial Weekend that will be!

The next message will appear on Tuesday, May 30th.  Enjoy the long weekend!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Be a Saint

Even when I am not teaching my seminar on Thomas Merton’s spirituality, I find myself turning again and again to his writings.  Merton has been dead for more than forty years.  As many of you know, he was a monk in a very out of the way place in the hills of Kentucky.  Every time I have been to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I am amazed at how this worldly citizen wound up in this place and stayed there for so long until he met his untimely death in a bathtub in Bangkok, Thailand. 

I think the reason Merton became so popular in his own lifetime and that popularity continues now forty years later is the guy was so human, so fragile, so searching.  He was a man of contradictions and, certainly, confusions.  He was a monk, but at times he was not a very good monk---at least, according to his abbot.  To become a monk at Gethsemani meant he took a lifetime vow of stability.  And yet, he always seemed ready to chuck it all and take off for some other place.  Perhaps it was fitting that he died in some far away Asian country and, yet, was returned to his beloved monastery to rest in the cemetery right outside the church walls.   

As I was doing some work on the internet, I came across one of the quotations from Merton that I know fairly well.  But every time I read it, it seems fresh and challenging.  It engages me and, in effect, asks me what I plan to do with his words.  His words are not merely his words.  They are words that are about my life and your life, too, if you want to take on the challenge. 

Merton quipped, “For me to be a saint means for me to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.”  Those words resonate so truly with me I feel like I know exactly what he means and I am sure I have no clue what he means.  I feel like I know what he means because it feels so true. 

I find it very appealing to say becoming a saint is to become my self.  That sounds so simple…and I believe it is simple.  It is simple, but it is not easy.  I suppose most Americans don’t think about becoming a saint.  Can you imagine asking a little kid, “So what do you want to become?”  And that kid replies, “I want to become a saint!”  I would be appalled if I heard young lips utter such a sentence.  And I would be only slightly less appalled to hear some older person say it.  I am not sure I know anyone whose aspiration is to become a saint.  But why not? 

I think this is the deep question Merton poses to himself and to us.  If you are a creature of God (which I believe) and if you are created in the image of God (which I also believe), why would you not want to be a saint?  I am sure one of the reasons I never think this way is the stereotype I have of what a saint actually is. 

My saint-stereotype is some guy or gal who is otherworldly and way-too-serious.  A saint is someone who never has any fun and probably too boring to take to a party.  In my stereotyped mind a saint is someone pretty out of touch with reality---at least, reality the way I live it.  But my stereotype is malarkey! 

Merton’s words are a stiff challenge because they are a challenge to figure out life at its deepest level and, then, live it.  I like how he combines “sanctity” and “salvation.”  Sanctity is nothing more than the Latin word for “sacred” or “holy.”  I don’t use that language too much, but I am attracted to it. 

I am aware that our world and our culture are not very holy.  The opposite of sacred is profane.  Sadly, I believe we live in a “God damn world” more than we live in a “God blessed world.”  When we opt for profanity, we opt against becoming a saint.  And if Merton is correct, not to be a saint---or want to become a saint---is to opt for life as a false self.  I think he is correct. 

So his words and his challenge are keen for me.  To become a saint is to find myself and to discover my true self.  I want to do that.  Merton assumes---and I do, too---that if I find my true self, then I will be on the road to sanctity.  I will be leaving and giving up profanity.  Swearing is just the tip of the profanity iceberg.   

If I don’t engage this pilgrimage, I may become rotten to the core.  I can use perfume to hide the smelly rot, but this kind of life will truly become God-forsaken.  I find good news in Merton’s conviction that each of us already has a true self.  Becoming a saint is possible and preferable. 

It can be done slowly, patiently and usually in a community of nurturing, supportive people who are on the saintly journey, too.  It is not a heroic journey.  It is very democratic---anybody and everybody can do it.  If we can do it, we will become a sweet smell and savor to the God who created us and wants the best---the holy best---for each of us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fraudulent Life

Occasionally I either choose or have to return to a book I read some years ago.  That is usually a good experience.  One of the depressing things for me is to realize I cannot remember everything I read!  I suppose that has always been true, but somehow I am more aware of it now.  So it is usually the case that when I reread certain parts of good books, I feel the thrill of learning all over again.  And that is a good thing! 

So I returned to one of my favorite authors, friend, and fellow-Quaker, Parker Palmer.  I wanted to look at some sections in his book, A Hidden Wholeness.  I used this book once in the group I lead, which we call Soul Work.  I liked it then and I rediscovered it to my liking one more time. 

I also like it when books have subtitles.  Often they are more revealing than the main title.  Palmer’s book has a great, revealing subtitle: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World.  As Quakers would say, “that speaks to my condition.”  In other words that makes perfect sense to me! 

In order to achieve the wholeness that Parker Palmer talks about, we need to find some integrity in our lives.  For many of us that integrity---that wholeness---is already present.  It is simply “hidden.”  But it is not a simple thing to find it.  In fact, we may have to take action which will feel more like “creating” wholeness than “finding” it.  We create it by means of re-shaping the context in which we live.  To re-shape the context means we will necessarily re-shape the way we live.

Many of us probably are not living a life of wholeness because we are living what Palmer calls, “the divided life.”  We may have a gut feeling that this is true, but sometimes it is difficult to put into words what this really means.  If we can figure this out, then maybe we can find the path to the hidden wholeness.  To put it in theological language, maybe we can begin the pilgrimage to salvation.  (Salvation is really a Latin word that means wholeness or wellness.) 

Palmer talks about the costs of the divided life.  And he gives some examples, which resonated with me.  For example, he says that the persons living the divided life can “sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.”  The next one is the one that knocked my socks off.  Palmer notes that sometimes “We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.”  This one made me wince! 

Often the divided self that we are appears in a dual way.  By ourselves---alone---we may have some sense of who we really are.  But when we go public, we are not our true self.  We play some role or, perhaps, multiple roles.  American culture is very good at defining people according to roles.  I am a parent, a professor, a secretary and on and on.  Who we are is determined by what we do.

Sometimes money follows roles.  We don’t pay teachers what the lawyers make.  And the list goes on.  Looking at what we do and who we are can determine our value.  You make more than I do, so you must be more valuable than I am! 

Given this, how on earth do we welcome the soul and weave community?  Of course, that is not an easy question to answer.  But I agree with Parker Palmer that what was just described indicates a wounded world.  And it is in that world that the soul must be welcomed and community must be woven. 

The antidote to the divided self is to discover and develop our true self.  This true self is our soul and that is the “me’ that is central to community formation and nurture.  There are myriad ways we could suggest that we approach the soul work needed to give up the divided self.  Let me choose one that Parker Palmer offers, especially as it has to do with people who are too busy in life.  Too often schedule dictates life. 

Palmer tells us “There are three keys to creating a schedule that welcomes the soul: slow down, do more with less, and pay attention to rhythm.”  I like all three of these and can immediately see their relevance for my life.  And I realize I really don’t need any more “answers” or “suggestions” in the moment.  If I could just work on one of these---or perhaps, dabble with all three---then I am sure I would begin to sense that I was more soulful. 

If I were to pick off the most important one for me in the moment, it would be to pay attention to rhythm.  What is my daily rhythm?  How is it soulful?  Or is it soul destructive?  Those are serious questions that I normally would never take the time to ask nor ponder. 

How could I alter my rhythm to enable me to become more soulful?  Altering something does not always mean adding!  Perhaps I need to subtract?  Or switch?  Can I add something to my rhythm that enhances the growth of soul?  No doubt, the answer is yes.  Maybe I could begin a short period of meditation or a devotional.  I do some of this, but sometimes it is more haphazard than rhythmic. 

What could you begin to do?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Stroke is a Stroke

I admit that I play some golf.  It is a maddening game.  I always considered myself above average athletically, but when I play golf, I have my doubts.  I am not willing to claim there is anything spiritual about golf and, perhaps, there are no spiritual lessons to be learned.  It does teach me something about humility!  And it may well be diabolical---devilish---which may be as close to spiritual as it gets. 

I am intrigued by the scoring in golf.  For those who know nothing about golf, let me explain.  Any time the golf club makes contact with the ball, it counts as a stroke.  Strokes are added as you play the course and the one who has the fewest strokes for eighteen holes wins the game.  Most golf courses tell us “par” should be 72 strokes for eighteen holes of golf.  Of course, I would not know.  I cannot shoot “par” golf.  It always takes more strokes for me to play an eighteen-hole golf course than that “par” golf suggests it should take.

In this sense, “par” golf is not average.  Instead par golf is nearly ideal golf.  Only professionals can play golf so well that we can say they play “par” golf.  The rest of us play above par.  Some of us play significantly above par golf.  In fact, I recently heard a statistic that claims about 80% of us who play golf score more than 100 strokes on a 72-par course!   

What fascinates me about the scoring in golf is the fact that a stroke is a stroke.  Let’s explore that fact.  To say a stroke is a stroke is simply to say any time the club touches the ball, it is a stroke.  It does not matter how far you hit the ball.  It is a stroke.  I might have a strong day when I can hit with the longest club in my bag, namely, the driver.  The good players can hit a ball more than 300 yards with the driver.  I can’t hit it that far with the driver, but on a good day I can still hit it out there pretty far.  That big hit is a stroke. 

On the other hand, when you finally get the ball onto the green, the club to be used is the putter.  Most Americans are familiar with this part of a golf game, even if they have only played putt-putt golf.  Each time you putt the ball, it is a stroke.  So it could be a ten-foot putt or a two-inch putt and they all count as one stroke.  This is what fascinates me.  A two-inch putt is one stroke, just like the 300-yard drive.    

In fact, occasionally you will see a ball stop just short of the hole.  There are times when I am sure I could walk up to the ball sitting right on the lip of the hole and jump up and down and the ball would fall into the hole.  Nevertheless to touch it with the putter to knock it into the hole is still one stroke.  That truly amazes me that stroke counts the same as a 300-yard drive!  Part of me thinks that is not fair.  But that’s the way the game is played.  A stroke is a stroke.  That’s the rule. 

I wonder if this is not where the game of golf mimics the game of life.  Let me put it this way.  Let’s call the stroke the consequence of touching the ball with the club.  The touch could be a 300-yard drive or the one-inch putt.  Each stroke is a consequence.  I think this parallels our actions in life.  I would argue that our actions have consequences.  Of course, our actions in life are much more difficult to measure than the golf strokes.  And I understand not everyone agrees that our life’s actions have consequences.  But I also know most spiritual traditions do think life’s actions do have consequences. 

“An eye for an eye” is one way some traditions talk about it.  Another tradition talks about karma.  Karma is the way a Buddhist explains life’s consequences.  Karma is a spiritual rule, so to speak.  Just like the game of golf, we can cheat the game of life.  We can cheat by not counting all the strokes.  We can lie about what we actually did.  We can declare our own rules.  In golf there are many ways to break the rules and still claim we have not broken the rules. 

It is clear the same thing happens in life. There are things I have done that should have consequences, but I claim it should not matter.  On the other hand, some times I should do something and refrain from doing it.  Again, I would say that it is inconsequential.  I attempt to make my own rules.  If I can make my own rules, then I can always be just.   

Most major spiritual traditions claim that justice is blind.  What I want for myself should be the same for what others get.  If a stroke is a stroke, then it has to be the same for you as it is for me.  Too often, however, I want the advantage.  And sadly, sometimes I am willing to cheat or lie to get that advantage.  But I don’t want any consequences for having done so. 

This is where golf and life differ.  Ultimately, whether I cheat and lie in golf does not matter.  I can deceive myself about being a better golfer than I really am.  Or I can alienate friends and golf partners when I cheat.  Otherwise, life goes on. 

But in life, there is more at stake.  Lying and cheating have consequences.  A stroke is a stroke.  I doubt these are consequences that send us to hell.  But to play the game of life by your own rules does create hellish situations for those around us.  And ultimately, it condemns us to be a much lesser person than we can be.  And that is spiritually very sad.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Search Your Soul

Recently, I wrote some observations based on the epilogue Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk, wrote in his book, The Sign of Jonas.  The book uses the familiar Hebrew Bible prophet, Jonah, to talk about both himself and his monastic community, Gethsemani, in Kentucky.  The epilogue is dated July 4, 1952.  The piece describes the night Merton was on fire watch duties, which included walking though the monastery at night on the lookout for fires.  The special concern was the outbreak of fires in the surrounding wooded areas.
   
It is not unusual, however, that Merton turned this daily monastic duty into a metaphorical spiritual lesson.  Reading the rather lengthy epilogue is to accompany Merton on his night rounds throughout the monastery.  But even more than this, reading the account is to join Merton in his internal spiritual pilgrimage through his own faith journey.  I am confident Merton shared this so that we, too, could embark on our own spiritual trip of memory and expectation.
   
Let’s share Merton’s lead in order to see up our own search for our souls.  Merton is quite clear what is he doing and by implication, what he invites us to do.  Early in the epilogue Merton says, “The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”  First, we can unpack this and then follow Merton’s suggestion for a search for our own souls.
   
The fire watch is an examination of conscience.  It is interesting that Merton here uses the word, conscience.  He takes no pain in the context to explain what he means by it or why he uses the word.  Let me offer an opinion on both counts.  In the first place I believe Merton uses “conscience” here to mean the usual sense of “awareness of right and wrong.”  To elaborate, our conscience is the place, or better, space where we have some sense of God’s nature and our own true nature, at least, as God intended it to be.  To be aware of and live by our conscience is to acknowledge our role as moral beings---people who know right from wrong. 
   
Secondly, I wonder if Merton uses the term, conscience, in this context to mean something more than the normal moral meaning for that word, conscience?  In this context I get the sense that Merton is expanding the language of conscience to means something akin to what he normally means by the word, soul.  Pushing this further, conscience or soul is the place where we are aware of and, hopefully, in tune with God.  Merton was certainly knowledgeable and I join him, too, in realizing that he and I can be aware of our conscience or soul and still ignore it and go our own way and do our own thing. 
   
This is where I think Merton wants to go when he talks about using the fire watch as an “examination” of our conscience.  Periodically, I hear him telling us, we need to make a kind of “fire watch” pilgrimage in order to examine our conscience.  This is his exhortation for us to do some version of soul work.  According to Merton, there are some things that will inevitably happen in this process.  So let’s join him in our own fire watch march.
   
Initially he tells us, our task as watchman will suddenly appear in it true light.  Merton discovered his fire watch duty was more than circling through the monastery on the lookout for fires.  He realized he was invited metaphorically into a more spiritual trip.  That is why he says our duty will emerge in its true light.  We thought we were on the prowl for fires.  Additionally, we discover we are actually on the prowl for our own souls.
   
Here’s how Merton put it: the fire watch was merely a “pretext devised by God to isolate you.”  The first part of our task is to find ourselves alone.  Why do we need to be isolated?  It is in our solitariness that we have no help, no distraction, etc.  We are on our own.  In this isolation we will meet God in our nakedness.  In isolation God will come to undress us.  God does this by virtue of lamps which shine light on our dark places.  And God does this by the questions posed to us.  In isolation we have to deal with the lamps and questions.  We can’t hide in groups or our own business.
   
In this process God will search our soul.  We probably will have a myriad of experiences, some of which will be embarrassment, shame and some guilt.  But simultaneously, this also will be a purifying experience.  God’s light will eradicate our own darkness.  God’s questions will force our authenticity.  All this will happen in the “heart of darkness.”  No doubt, we all know life at night---the experiences of darkness---are much different than day-time living. 
   
What can we expect from this process of searching for our soul?  There will be some negativity---such as the shame and guilt mentioned before.  But there is much more positivity.  We noted the purifying that likely happens.  Even more importantly, we can expect that we will come closer to knowing ourselves in a true, authentic way.  We will begin to know ourselves as God created us to be and as God wants us to be.  This is a powerful experience of hope.
   
I appreciate Merton’s reflection on his night as a fire watch.  I appreciate mostly because of what it teaches me is necessary for my own “fire watch” time.  It is a time of isolation, examination, discovery and call to life like God most wants for me.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Story of Love

The Pope is up to it again.  I enjoy following Pope Francis in his travels, speeches and actions in our world.  He is such an inspiration to many---Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Even though I am not a Roman Catholic, I like to think he is my Pope, too.  I hope all my Catholic friends are ok with me claiming Francis to be my Pope as well as their Pope. 
   
I was pulled into his recent pronouncement by reading the article in a Catholic periodical that I regularly read.  The headlines of the article proclaimed, “God dreams big, wants to transform the world, defeat evil, pope says.”  This article deals with a recent papal speech in Francis’ appearance in St. Peter’s Square.  This was another in his series of papal addresses dealing with hope.  In his speech the Pope is dealing with the account of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of the crucified Jesus.  Unexpectedly to her, she has an experience of the risen Lord---God’s Presence.  At one point the Pope said, "she discovers the most earth-shattering event in human history when she is finally called by name."  Francis goes on to develop this point.
   
A key part of his message is this encounter of Mary Magdalene is not just a historical event describing one lucky woman.  It is really a description of how God will deal with each and every one of us.  Francis continues, "How beautiful it is to think that the first appearance of the Risen One, according to the Gospels, happened in such a personal way.  That there is someone who knows us, who sees our suffering and disappointment," whose heart breaks "for us and who calls us by name." 
   
The Christian good news proclaims that God will deal with each of us in personal ways.  We are assured that there is One who knows us.  John’s gospel graphically puts this in terms of God calling us by name.  I am a named person.  I am not some “you.”  Names identifies and specifies.  It does not matter that there are, in fact, many people with my first name.  The fact is we each have a name.  We were named and, thereby, became persons who are “somebody” and who are “special.”  That is how God deals with us.
   
And then I came to the place in the article that stunned me.  The Pope said that every one of us "is a story of love that God has written on this earth."  Francis goes on to finish this thought when he notes that, "Each one of us is a story of God's love."  I was deeply moved to think that I am actually a “story of love” that God is writing on earth.  That gives my life a value and worthiness that I don’t feel every day of life.  Let me suggest that my life as a “story of love” is both already and fact, but also a hope.
   
My life as a “story of love” is already a fact.  I did not merit that.  It was given to me as a gift.  It is a matter of grace, not my merit.  I can be thankful, but I cannot be egotistical because of my own accomplishments.  My “story of love” is a testament to God’s mercy.  And it is not just my fact; it is yours, too.  You also are a “story of love.”  That’s a fact!
   
But it is a story.  It is not over.  And it does not mean the story is perfect.  Ultimately, it might become a perfect love story, but it is not yet that for me.  There are some chapters in my life as a “story of love” that are not good or worthy.  A story of love may have some chapters describing our lives as wrong, stupid or lost.  I have experienced all of those facets of a sad story of life.  I have been wrong, stupid and lost.  But the story is not over.
   
The good news according to the Pope is we are not the sole authors of our lives.  Our life as a “story of love” is not just my story.  It is a life that is being co-authored.  God is co-authoring my life just as much as I am.  I am confident many of us are under the illusion that we are the sole authors of our lives.  If that were true, our lives likely will not turn out to be “stories of love.”  I do not have the confidence I can pull off a “story of love” all by myself.  If I am graced, then I have a chance.  Then I have hope and a bright future of love.  With the mercy of God, I do have confidence the story will have a happy ending. 
   
It can be a comedy, not a tragedy.  I think that is the heart of the Resurrection story---it is finally a comedy.  Death does not get the last laugh.  And it is no doing of our own.  The “story of love” is not only the story of love, but it is a narrative of God’s grace.  In fact, I remember somewhere Gerald May talks about love being the flowering of grace.  That fits here very nicely.
   
God cares.  And God dares to continue to write love stories.  Those love stories will have names---personal names.  One of them is my name.  I like to think I am a living “story of love” being written out.  Much of my love story has been written.  Not every chapter is a crowning success.  There are those chapters of stupidity, lostness and being wrong.  But I am confident of the ending. 
   
What I want to do as I write the remaining few chapters is to operate with the full knowledge that my life is a “story of love” unfolding.  I want to co-operate with my co-author and write the strongest finish possible.  I want my life to bear witness to the fact that it is not just my life.  It is also the Life of the One who is living within me---co-authoring my “story of love.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Scandal of Grace

I have a book that contains quite a number of short pieces.  Some of them are articles in various periodicals---journals that might be religious in nature or some more popular magazines.  I occasionally read another piece.  Some of the authors I know and very much like---people like Annie Dillard.  Others I have never seen their names and know nothing about them.  One such name was James Van Tholen. 

His article appeared in Christianity Today, a well-known, more evangelical magazine that I try to read with some regularity.  James was a pastor in a Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, NY.  He had been assaulted with a nasty kind of cancer at age 33.  After some months of chemotherapy, he was able to return to his church.  The selection I read was his first sermon back with his parishioners.  It was very touching and I wanted to share some of it. 

I was touched by his openness and vulnerability.  Early in his sermon he communicated these words.  “So let me start with honesty.  The truth is that for seven months I have been scared.  Not of the cancer, not really.  Not even of death.  Dying is another matter---how long it will take and how it will go.  Dying scares me.”  I resonate with this because I am pretty much in the same boat.  I don’t find the idea of death troubling, but dying is another matter! 

Van Tholen continues his reflections in the sermon.  This next piece surprised me.  He says, “My real fear has centered somewhere else.  Strange as it may sound, I have been scared of meeting God.”  That is crazy, we might think, since the guy is a pastor and spiritual leader.  Again I appreciate his honesty.  Indeed, Van Tholen says basically the same thing.  He asks, “How could this be so?  How could I have believed in the God of grace and still have dreaded to meet him?”  That is a great question!  I, too, believe in a God of grace.  We read on to find out how Van Tholen dealt with his dilemma. 

After his experience of cancer, Van Tholen begins inching his way to an answer to his question, “how could this be so?”  He tells us, “As the wonderful preacher John Timmer has taught me over the years, the answer is that grace is a scandal.”  I absolutely love that line and that idea.  Grace is a scandal.  I don’t think I have ever heard it put this way and it fits. 

Van Tholen goes further.  “Grace is hard to believe.  Grace goes against the grain.  The gospel of grace says that there is nothing I can do to get right with God, but that God has made himself right with me…”  This fits how I have come to understand grace.  Linguistically, I know that grace means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  It is not earned and not a matter of me deserving it.  Grace is a way of affirming me when there may be littler or no basis for that affirmation.

When I was in graduate school, I heard for the first time the idea of “prevenient grace.”  I had never heard that language while I was growing up in my Quaker tradition.  But I knew enough Latin to know the word, prevenient, meant “that which comes before or ahead of time.”  So prevenient grace is that grace that comes to us before we need it or hope for it.  Prevenient grace comes ahead of time.  I like the image of the door.  Prevenient grace is there and opens doors as we are coming to the doors.  We don’t deserve it, but it is a gift nevertheless. 

But why does Van Tholen call it the scandal of grace?  Why use “scandal” language?  Grace is scandalous because it seems to cancel the judgment of justice.  Scandalous grace says God loves us even when we deserve to be punished.  Scandalous grace says it is ok, when everyone knows it was not ok!


There are many within the church and even outside religious institutions who secretly want people to “get theirs!”  Some of us want people to get what they deserve.  Often we don’t like it for grace to come along and cancel out the just deserts.  We want people to hurt instead of sing Hallelujah!  Particularly those of us who play by the rules and are obedient may want those who don’t play by the rules to “get theirs.”  We want accountability and God offers grace---scandalous grace. 

Too often, I am the elder son in the Prodigal Son story.  The prodigal comes home after blowing his share of the inheritance.  And dad throws a party!  That makes some of us mad.  That is scandalous!  Indeed, it is scandalous grace! 

Lord, help me come to understand more fully and embrace this radical, scandalous gift of Yours.  And maybe some day, may I be able to grace others in the same way.