Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
-I Corinthians 12:31
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
– The Confession
We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.
If there is one practical idea that encapsulates grace, it’s the belief that people are doing the best they can with what they have. People who believe this are more likely to cut others slack, give them the benefit of the doubt and remember they don’t know what’s going on in a person’s life or what traumas or wounds have shaped them…In other words, they know how to practice grace. When I first read Brené Brown’s claim that people are usually doing the best they can, my immediate reaction was “No, Brené, they aren’t.” In my judgy little head, I ticked off all the people who I knew were not trying hard enough. I had just learned how dualism was clouding my vision and was straining to wrap my brain around a new way of thinking, but I felt enormous resistance to apply this idea to people whom I didn’t like or who were angering me. It was one thing to say that about a friend or a like-minded person…It was an entirely different feat to offer this grace to the people who were driving me to the brink of madness.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.-Matthew 5:21-22
As I reflect on these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, I hope you will be relieved to know that I have never been charged with murder. But the truth is that I have been angry with a brother or sister (widely defined). In my own way, I have insulted the same. And there have been way too many times when I’ve at least thought someone was a fool, apparently making me liable to the hell of fire.
If Jesus was preaching this sermon today, he might refer to road rage. I have often yelled at some idiot driver. (My windows rolled up, of course, and without my clerical collar.) I would never speak that way to someone in the car with me.
If Jesus was preaching this sermon today, he might say something about social media, how easy it is to take off with dismissive language about someone else. In both the cases of road rage and social media, what is lacking is relationship (let alone compassion or empathy) with the person who has set us off. That lack of relationship can often reveal darker, toxic tendencies.
When Jesus says those things are somehow equivalent to murder, I can chalk it up to ancient near eastern hyperbole. But that misses the point, in many ways. Jesus is probing our hearts, to see where there might be murderous, hateful intent. The crowd knew the law which spoke against murder. For the most part they could say: Haven’t done that. But Jesus wants to go deeper, to say that what matters is the intent in our heart. Though we may keep it well hidden, there can be toxicity there.
If we are taking this bit of the Sermon on the Mount seriously, taking it to heart, we have to begin by admitting that we may harbor dark intentions. It’s amazing how they can even come up even among religious folks. I’m always struck that the first murder recorded in the Bible, when Cain killed his brother, was really a fight about worship. You could say it was a church fight. Once we’ve admitted that, what are we to do about it?
In today’s heated political climate, I’ve been praying about the toxicity in my own spirit towards folks who see things differently than I do. There’s a lot of hateful rhetoric being thrown around. It’s easy to respond in kind, to become what we judge.
I’ve received a couple answers to those prayers recently.
One answer came in a book I just finished called Saving Grace by journalist Kristen Powers. Give it to yourself as an early Christmas gift. The subtitle captures the aim of the book: Speak your truth. Stay centered. And learn to coexist with people who drive you nuts. I admit that subtitle may sound like mere tolerance. Her counsel is more profound than that. She speaks about how important it is to practice grace. You can get a sample of what she is up to in the column on the left.
Another answer came in a recent RenewalWorks call focused on how we can learn about prayer. A rector spoke about what she shares about prayer with her congregation. She explores a variety of ways to teach about prayer in a series of 2 minute videos. She shared one in which she speaks about praying the news. As she reads the paper, instead of fuming or despairing, she prays for the situation, including prayers for those who drive her nuts.
Finally, we can always go to the baptismal covenant, which calls us to answer these questions: Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self? Will we respect the dignity of every human being? Note that they don’t say seek and serve Christ in all Episcopalians, or people who agree with us, or Americans, or liberals, or conservatives? Same with the dignity piece. We are called to an expansive love, which recognizes the centrality of a relationship with God and with each other.
Jesus came to give us a clean heart, to give us his heart. As we get ready for his arrival at Christmas, may we be given grace to practice grace. What will that look like for you this week?
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