Sunday, May 29, 2005

My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter

Two of today's lectionary readings were enough to give a Lutheran hives: Texts where God tells us, in some pretty strong language, to do stuff. To love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength. To not only listen to Jesus, but to actually do what he says.

But then, sandwiched between them we heard our favorite text, the one that gets us to humming "A Mighty Fortress," there in the 3rd chapter of Romans: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law."

How do we harmonize these two concepts? -- that God has a claim on our lives, and certain guidelines for how we live them, but that despite this we do not live under the burden of the Law?

It's hard. And a lot of American Protestantism doesn't seem able or willing to try. I can't tell you how many Internet discussions I've had with "born-again" folks who are determined to turn the Gospel into the Law, and who confuse justification with sanctification -- who start out agreeing that, yes, we're saved by grace through faith and not by works, but who in the next breath add, "...and then you have to....and then you have to..." As my pastor likes to say, "That's supposed to be the Good News?..."

We Lutherans, on the other hand, often seem entirely too complacent in our justification; content to remain "the frozen chosen," in a sort of spiritual infancy -- not willing to learn to turn over on our own, to start crawling and babbling, walking and talking and otherwise growing into our faith as we live in the world. We've got the "saved" part of the equation down; the "saved for what?" not so much.

But I think I might have an insight into our dilemma, based on my own experience.

I'm a relatively new homeowner. After spending all of my early adulthood renting, I returned to my hometown, to my parents' house...which I affectionally call Cold Comfort Cottage, because like the house in Cold Comfort Farm, this house has, shall we say, maintenance issues: gutters that leak; squeaky floors; bi-fold closet doors with a tendency to run off track; external insulation around the foundation that is degrading. The place was intended to be my parents' easy-come, easy-go retirement cottage after 40 years in a big old farmhouse, and frankly toward the end my dad was too tired to care a whole lot about keeping the place up.

Enter me. Bottom-line: I am not a fixer-upper kind of person. I don't have the same home-ownership fire in the belly that makes some people spend every weekend at Home Depot learning how to build a deck or texturize paint. And when circumstances force me to learn a new home maintenance task, I don't go about it with the same relish that I would, say, learning a new language, or how to use some interesting new piece of electronics. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the project. And I tend not to go about it with my whole heart; I'm tentative, whiny, prone to half-measures.

After thinking about this for awhile, I realized what is holding me back in my tool-time duties is...fear; the other bad four-letter word starting with F. I'm afraid of screwing up. I'm afraid of making the situation worse. So I tend to do nothing unless I absolutely, positively have to.

I think fear is at the root of both Christian legalism and Christian complacency. Some of us process our fear by obsession-compulsion; needing to cross every T and dot every I, "or else," and getting very angry at others who don't or won't get with the program. Some of us process our fear by never taking that first step into the unknown when called upon to do "the next right thing."

That's the bad news. The good news, according to our lessons, is that we don't have to do it right; we just do it, because the God we love tells us it's our job and that makes us want to do it for God, knowing that, no matter what degree of competence or success we seem to experience, we live enfolded in God's grace -- grace that makes us bold to act.

Martin Luther actually wrote a great deal about Christians performing good works on behalf of their neighbors, noting at one point that someone in whom Christ dwells through faith can't help but do good works. Says Luther elsewhere, of Christ present in faith in the life of a Christian:

A Christian becomes a skillful artisan and a wonderful creator, who can make joy out of sadness, comfort out of terror, righteousness out of sin, and life out of death.

(This quote, by the way, was taken from Christ Present in Faith by Tuomo Mannermaa, Fortress Press, an outstanding book that finds intriguing parallels between Luther's theology of Christ's indwelling presence in the life of the Christian and the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis.)

I'm still nervous about tackling my gutters -- but apprenticing myself to the Artisan who can give me the courage to tackle the next right thing on behalf of the people around me in my particular Sitz im Leben, minute by minute, day by day...I want that. As the hymn in With One Voice puts it, "I want to walk as a child of the light." And not just because the boss is my Brother, the benefits are swell, I won't get fired, and I won't fall off any ladders. Well, I'm not sure about that last one.

Just do it. That's what the lessons tell us today. As Augustine put it, love God and do as you like, and pretty soon what you like starts getting closer to what God likes. Christ has begun an exciting new construction project in our hearts, and is sending us out on jobs of our own. Talk about "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Go in peace and serve the Lord!
Thanks be to God!

"Christ the Carpenter," Christ Church Priory Posted by Hello


bls said...

I swear, sometimes when I read your posts I think we're twins, separated at birth.

Or, at least, that we have the same, exact destiny - with all the same issues and problems to along with it.

What do you suppose that could mean? Do you think we're eventually going to report in and be debriefed? Do you think we're subjects in some sort of cosmic study, and these are the test conditions?

Purechristianithink said...

Yeah--I've been reading the Finns recently too. I'm very interested in the whole different soteriology embraced in the Orthodox church. Not just as an intellectual excersize, but in it's possible impact on how we do church. I don't think mainline Protestants are going to turn into Eastern Orthodox--but our whole emphasis on salvation as justification has contributed, I think, to forms of church that emphasize getting saved as a once and for all decision as opposed to being saved as an on-going process of spiritual formation. In other words, to a church of home buyers as opposed to homemakers.

*Christopher said...

It's interesting to me that some folks still think Luther didn't care about loving one's neighbor. The point was, this should flow out of God's love for us, not out of fear of some law. Fear was the enemy for the good Herr Doktor. Luther had an implicit Pneumatology, and the Finns are doing a great job of highlighting this.

LutheranChik said...

Bls: Yes, I've noticed that too! Which is kind of cool, since I don't have a sister. (I did have an imaginary friend when I was about five, but in retrospect, and in comparison, she was kind of boring.;-))

Hey, maybe we're in a cosmic version of "Green Acres" -- fresh air/Times Square, etc. LOL

Andy said...

I think you're definitely on the right trail with the "just do it" thinking.

Did you catch my post on grace in the form of command? It's more of an exploration than an answer, but I think it's along the lines of what you're thinking here.

pure, you're right. One of the most important possibilities of the Finnish thinking is that it opens up new possibilities in Lutheran spirituality, or at least keeps us from being embarrassed about pursuing the traditional paths like contemplative prayer.

LutheranChik said...

PurechristianIthink: I agree. And while I couldn't sign on to Orthodoxy for a number of reasons, I do admire (and we were talking about this on another forum) the role of Orthodox priest as a spiritual director to members of his flock. And I think (well, since you're a pastor, you can tell me if this is right)that a lot of pastors/priests in our traditions would love to take a more active role in individual members' spiritual formation -- helping them live into that "homemaking" frame of mind.

LutheranChik said...

Christopher: And some of that "Luther didn't care about good works" mentality comes from within Lutheranism. Most Lutherans really have very little idea of Luther's thought, beyond the Small Catechism (and not even that anymore, in many cases)...I was in college before I really got past the one-dimensionsal, Marty-hammering-the-95-Theses-on-the-church-door concept of Luther and really started reading what he had to say. Some of it was, frankly, mulletheaded at best, reprehensible at worst; some of it made sense in his 16th-century milieu but not so much today; some of it is just as fresh and insightful now as it was then.

LutheranChik said...

I will have to read that, Mel. (I've been out tilling the soil, so to speak, this weekend...apologies to my blogfriends.;-))

Unfortunately, my book club with Mark Powell is winding up just as we've started discussing his chapter on prayer and contemplation, which I thought was one of the better and more useful sections of his book. I told him he might think about riffing it off into a book of its own.

LutheranChik said...

BTW, to all readers: I just love the stained glass rendering of Christ the Carpenter -- the nails in his mouth are a great touch.

Someone asked me where I get my bloging artwork: A lot of it is findable in The Text This Week (see my list o'links), in the art section, which you can search thematically; other times I just google words and phrases until I find what I want, which is how I discovered this particular photo. So there you have it.;-)

Christopher said...

Here's a link to my sermon for this sunday about the parodox of Faith and Works:

LutheranChik said...

Hey, Chris -- this deviant woman (who is also called upon to do a sermon once in awhile...and who also feels compelled to occasionally nail theses to things;-)) thinks you did a great job! Well done.

Judd said...

hey chik,

if perseverance & sanctification are on your mind these days, you might really enjoy this short essay


LutheranChik said...

Judd: From my admittedly cursory reading of your essay and browsing through your website, I think you've missed my point. Way.

LutheranChik said...

Chris H.: BTW, one of these days I'm adding your blog to my blogroll...I'm just lazy.;-) And every time I tinker with it I mess up the line spacing.;-)

Judd said...

It's not my essay, or my site. Just thought you'd enjoy it. What was your point?

Judd said...

Sorry, didn't mean to be flip :-) I did get your point, you expressed it very well. It would make a great sermon.

I realize the essay I linked wasn't addressing exactly what you wrote, but it did seem tangentially connected. Sorry to not offer a more direct interaction with your post... it was just a passing thought I had at the moment. Really enjoy your writing.

LutheranChik said...

Thanks, Judd. De nada. And maybe I just wasn't getting into your essay. When I posted I was in mood, having just verbally smacked someone upside the head elsewhere on the Internet. (Rough work, but it had to be done.)

greg said...

Read anything by Richard Rohr? He's not the best writer (IMHO), but he has some good ideas. Like, find someone who is very different from you and get to know them. Really get to know them. Just go out and do it. He recommends this as a way of getting over the fear.