Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Least Reverend James

When it comes to writing, an image haunts me -- water pressure behind a spigot.  As I now try to complete a tedious update to one of my books and three other February 1 deadlines loom, I'm tempted to turn the spigot and wash them away. Virginia would like that, my current publisher would not.

Right now, the spigot holds a story I'd like to write about friends.  Even though they wildly disagree on politics and religion, their commonalities hold them close.  How can this be?

Many people think of the United States as a "Christian" country.  Some point to the founding fathers although, because of persecution in their past, they set this nation on a foundation separating church and state.  Some point to a slogan on our greenbacks, "In God We Trust," even though that could apply to almost anyone who isn't an atheist.

Watch and listen to what goes on.  Do we look and sound like a Christian country?

"It's not works," some Christians insist.  "It's grace that gives you the key to heaven."  Goodness gracious, let's talk about grace.  After all, it's a Sunday.

Let me begin by admitting I grew up in a faith that rarely mentioned "grace."  I didn't hear much, if anything, about it until I joined the Methodists.  Later, I learned that certain Pentecostals believe it doesn't matter if a preacher molests little girls during the week.  When he preaches on Sunday, he deserves your full attention because his words are the words of God.  Virginia says, "I might call that grace to the nth power, 'radical grace.'"

What is "grace?"  In the less radical version, I understand that by believing Jesus is your Savior and the Son of God, His grace admits you into Heaven (for example, Romans 11:6).  Some point to the crucifixion story.  Remember the three crosses:  two bore criminals, the middle one, Christ.  One of the criminals kept deriding Jesus, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us."  The other rebuked him and turned to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus responded, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."  (Luke 23:39-43.)

Talk about life being unfair.  Think of the wonderful person who has lived kindness and good works, who has sacrificed luxury so others can live, but doesn't accept Jesus as her savior.  She does not pass Go, she goes directly to everlasting hell, while the criminal who has lived a crooked, lascivious and downright evil life makes a last minute decision and goes straight to Heaven.  (I understand scholars may debate whether "Paradise" is Heaven.)

May I suggest something might be missing here?  Pretend you are Jesus on the cross.  Being Jesus, you have superpowers, so when you look at the grace-full criminal you don't see and hear what the rest of us do -- an empty head on a body saying something nice.  You see the man's past, present and future.  You see his soul, his mind and his spirit.  Maybe you see that he is not guilty -- confessions are notoriously unreliable (the good criminal said, "And indeed we have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds...").  Maybe you see a man who, except for the crime for which he suffers, lived a life doing many good things.

"Wrap it up," says Virginia.  "I'm used to homilies, not sermons."

"The point is," I say, "don't count on grace to get you in.  We need more help here first."

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