you can’t get there with your morals
or without love
lie down with me
the rules aren’t always right.
I like certainty. I think it’s a fairly common trait in humanity, but it’s a problem sometimes. It becomes an idol.
I used to like rules so much. Give me a rule and I could follow it to the letter of the law. I could also circumvent the spirit of it, but that’s not the point for now. Don’t lie? Okay. Don’t copy another’s homework? Okay. Don’t go see R rated movies? Okay. Simple enough. I didn’t have a problem following rules. If all else failed, at least I was right. The great god, being right, had my allegiance, completely.
As I grew, I wanted to know more and more “right” things. For a short time, I became very interested in learning all the right answers of a right faith. Orthodoxy. Understand, I think orthodoxy has its place and it is useful to understand the reasons behind why we say what we say in the creeds and catechisms (agreement being another thing altogether and also beyond the point at hand). All the same, there came a time when I had to step back from my correct thought and wondered, “even if I can explain correctly the Holy Trinity, but have not love . . . am I not just a clanging cymbal?”
I’m still in touch with my college campus pastor. I often joke about how I hope he has forgotten most of our conversations. When I say that, this is one of those conversations I had in mind, but now I’m writing about it for public consumption, so I suppose I don’t mind reminding him now. It was about 15 years ago, after all.
I was in his office at Southwest Texas State University and we were talking about something very law-oriented, I’m sure. I was still in my mode of having the rules down. He asked me, “What about grace?” I asked him to explain it to me. He went on to talk about a God who loved us no matter what, who did not place any requirements upon us. I looked at him square on, in all my youthful certainty, and said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
So he tried to explain it again. I was baffled. I finally said, “I don’t believe in that. God has to require something of us. He has to have some rule for judging us.” I, of course, said these things full of certainty that I knew the rules and, furthermore, that I was following them.
There are moments that I remember with a startling clarity. I so clearly remember looking at Pastor Craig like he was some alien, some apostate (although I didn’t know the word at the time, thankfully) pastor sent by Satan to test me and my faith. It must have been surely as baffling for him, a Lutheran pastor, talking to a lifelong Lutheran student! “Saved by faith through grace!” is our refrain, but I’d never understood that, never could wrap my head around the idea. It was so much easier to understand “do this” and “don’t do that” and leave the shades of gray for the artist’s canvas.
Well, they say so much of pastoring is planting seeds . . .
Learning about the Grace of God has been a long journey and with just a little more grace, it’ll be one that I’ll be traveling for years to come. Post-college failures, revelations, and doubts converged to make me realize that I was nowhere near keeping all the rules and wasn’t likely to keep many of them over the years ahead. How many years were wasted along the way of noticing my failure, agonizing over it, promising to never fail again and remain faithful . . . years of paralyzing fear over being wrong? I thought standing firm in my faith meant rededicating myself to the rules (which, by the way, included holding everyone else around me to the same rules) and promising to be faithful to the law.
I wish I could say that I had an experience of such grace that all the rule-keeping left me instantly. It didn’t. I did say it was a journey, right? I did, however, have an experience of God’s love when I was at the depths. (And, I have to say it one more time, that experience is also beside the point of this essay and is a story for another time and context.) I wasn’t liking myself too much at the time and God came along to tell me I am loved, accepted in that low estate. I was beginning to catch a glimpse of what grace might be.
I think I wrote a letter to Pastor Craig at that time, telling him something of it. If I didn’t he can consider this little essay a thank you for planting some seeds.
The real point of this essay is this: When we decide that we should stand firm on something, we think that we must become rigid and inflexible. I see that way less and less. The rules all look so solid, such great places to stand on, so certain. Grace looked so mercurial. Where do you stand when there are no standards for who God loves?
A favorite saying from the Desert Fathers says that our hearts are like stone and the Word of God is like water, but water eventually wears down stone. This is grace. Grace is the thing that turns the rock of rules into shifting sand. Grace isn’t so much a rock on which to stand as it is the steady, unyielding love of God that wears us down and often buoys us up.
The last couple of years have seen some shifting in my faith, and I’m understating. I have been re-evaluating my theology, trying to figure out what pieces of God I know because I know God and what pieces I know because I know theology. I feel like I’m slowly re-building my faith into something more than it once was, into something that is more than ecumenical councils and catechisms and prayer books.
Grace and grace and grace and grace. Like trying to stand on a bag of jelly, I’m learning it may be better to just lie down in surrender and rest. It may roll a bit beneath me but I’m counting that it will hold.
The grace of God will hold.
A writer in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in a number of small press journals and anthologies, Neil Ellis Orts occasionally writes articles on the arts. His novella, Cary and John, is available from Wipf & Stock Publishers.