Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When Grace Meets Obedience

My Uncle Louis came of age in the first decade of twentieth century in Westfield, Massachusetts.  He was a bright young man, firstborn of five, and my grandparents’ pride and joy.

My grandfather was proprietor of a grain store in Westfield.  Born on a farm, he sought his fortune in business, choosing Westfield, as it was the market town serving the eastern Berkshires.  In addition to grain, Grandfather sold hundreds of other items needed by families in the scattered farms and villages of the area.  Yet the same eye for business that brought him to Westfield and governed his inventory told him that the heyday for stores like his was passing.  The advent of automobiles and tractors meant the days of buggies and horse-drawn plows were numbered.  The spread of the cities meant that even the farms themselves were endangered.

Looking at the rapid changes in the world, and concerned for his growing family, Grandfather determined that the coming generation would need to find its way in the world beyond Westfield.  Thus, when Uncle Louis showed an interest in medicine, Grandfather decided that he should go to college.

So it was that one fine September morning Louis boarded the train for Albany, and its College of Medicine. It was the start of a new life filled with opportunity, but also with uncertainty.  He apparently made the early adjustments that entering freshmen make, but sometime in the first semester decided that the all the newness was just too much, the ways of the city too unlike Westfield, and the competitive environment too different from the home his parents kept.

The pressure built for a time until one day Louis decided he’d had enough.  He packed his bags, caught the next train to Westfield, and arrived home shortly before lunch.  Grandmother answered the door, heard the tale of why her son was standing there with bag and baggage, and welcomed him for the midday meal.  She and Grandfather listened the whole story with sympathy and understanding.  When the meal was over, Louis picked up his bags and headed toward his room.  Grandmother, however, put on her coat, scooped up a suitcase, and ushered her son back to the train station.  “It’s been wonderful seeing you.” she told him, “Now it’s time to get back to your studies.”

Louis got back to his studies, and he took with him an important lesson about life.  Years later, after becoming one of America’s first psychiatrists, he told this story on himself.  My parents used it as part of preparing my brother and me for adulthood.

The story of Louis is moving in its simplicity, and also in the tale it tells of my grandparents’ sensitivity, wisdom and plain common sense.  They understood that a young man away from home for the first time might feel an overwhelming wish to have some home cooking, and they saw that as a wish they could grant.  They understood his need to see familiar faces and hear much-loved voices, and they were willing to satisfy that desire.  They also knew that how they granted these wishes could affect the whole course of his life, and so they knew enough to give their fledgling a gentle but firm push back out into the world.

The story also tells us something important about spiritual growth.  In this day when all the old certainties seem to be crumbling about us, we look to God for assurance, for affirmation and for reliability.  We speak often of God’s love and care, because those qualities seem in short supply in the world around us.  Like Louis, we long for familiarity and reliability.  We want to be embraced and loved.  And God offers us those things.

But we, like Louis, need something more.  Much as we need to know God’s love, we also need to know that God made us for more than cuddling by the fire.  God made us to fulfill a destiny, and if we spend all of our lives simply seeking to be comfortable, we will never realize that destiny.  What made Louis’ trip home into a step toward maturity was his parents’ joint decision to send him back out into the world.  Having demonstrated love and acceptance, they showed that they cared enough to require something of him.

I thought of this old family story a few weeks ago, reading John’s account of the days leading up to Holy Week.  In his actions, in his teaching, and especially in his prayers, Jesus shows a combination of tender concern for his disciples’ wellbeing, but also a concern that they understand his call as demanding something of them.  He prays that they understand, that they find comfort, that the Holy Spirit sustain them, lead them and grant them wisdom.  Then, in John 14 and 15, he states terms:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

John 14:15

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.

John 15:10

Feel about Christ what we may, it is in striving to keep his commandments that we show ourselves to be his followers.  It is instructive that in earlier days the heart was understood as the instrument of will, not feelings.   “Be of strong heart” did not mean that we should feel something, but rather that we should be of high resolve.  “If you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead...” did not mean that we should have a warm feeling, but that our conviction of the truth of the resurrection should supersede all doubt, fear and unbelief, and move us to do the things Christ has commanded.

This is where the call to discipleship runs up against, and counter to the culture in which we presently must operate.  Our culture is strongly in favor of immediate self-gratification, and rather confused by self-sacrifice.  We find the idea of Jesus as Savior quite congenial.  Soter, the word translated “savior,” can also mean “life preserver,” as in the float used to rescue people from drowning.  When we find ourselves floundering about in heavy water, we’re quite happy to have one of those tossed to us.  In fact, we can get downright petulant if we think God is taking too long with it.

Our problem is with the idea of Jesus as Lord.  Kurios, is an uncompromising word which can serve as an adjective signifying power or authority; or it can be a noun, meaning “Lord,” “Master,” or “Owner.”  That the one who rescues us also claims authority, let alone ownership of us offends our culture’s conceit that we are our own persons, accountable to no one but ourselves.

And yet that is the claim of Christ: unlimited acceptance of us just as we are, yes; love beyond all human comprehension, yes; but also the demand that we show our gratitude and love by seeking to reflect in our living that same acceptance and love.  It is in balancing those seemingly contradictory terms of our call that we are able to grow into spiritual maturity.  My grandparents’ handling of Louis’ return home is to me an illustration of what it looks like in practice.  The acceptance of his moment of crisis, the welcome home balanced with the requirement that he continue his journey of growing up resembles the way Jesus met the needs of his disciples even as he commanded them to live obedient lives.  It is the same lesson we must learn if we are to become the persons he calls us to be, and thereby become the citizens of God’s Kingdom we are meant to be.

Howard MacMullen
© June, 2012

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