I had a conversation recently (very unpleasant) with another Presbyterian Pastor whose theology is so different from my own that I actually question whether we worship the same God. I can't completely let go of the conversation so I thought I'd write about it a bit. But first I want to say that normally I don't mind and usually enjoy theological debates with people whose theology differs from my own. But in this case, the conversation was followed by the words from the other pastor, "I would never send my child to be under YOUR tutelage" - words I found unnecessary and pretty hurtful. So much for loving your neighbor as yourself.
The conversation with this other pastor had to do with grace and faith. The other pastor was pushing me on how one "earns" God's grace. I kept saying that you can't earn God's grace, that grace, by it's very definition is given by...well, by grace - which means that we can't do anything to earn it. God gives it freely. This was not the answer he wanted. And he pushed until finally I said, "Look, I know what you are looking for in this is that we are given grace through believing - through our faith. And the truth is that I do believe that, but I am certain that I mean something VERY different than you do when I say that." I proceeded to explain that I deeply believe with all of my heart, soul and being that God's grace is offered all the time to all people. But we are not very good at accepting that grace. We live in fear, we live in guilt, we live in shame - and we have a hard time accepting the grace of God's love deeply and fully into our beings. We do, however, accept that grace through faith, by which I mean that through our belief that it is there, through our opening ourselves to that grace, through our trusting that God is love and gives us that grace all the time in every moment, we are able to accept that grace into our beings, and then to live in love, letting go of fear, guilt and shame. In other words, it is not that God withholds grace based on whether or not we believe. It is, rather, that believing opens us up to see and accept the grace that is offered all the time to all people. It is reversing the sentence, "I see therefore I believe" to one of "I believe and therefore I see."
Speaking very personally here, I know from my experience that this is true. I know that grace is offered all the time. And I know that through our faith, we can accept it in at such deep levels that we are transformed, made new, and get to live again, even beyond the deaths that face us, even beyond experiences in hell. I know because I have been to hell, I have walked in hell, I have lived there. And I found that God was there, too. That God was with me even in that darkness, and that it was only by grace, constant and present and full grace that I was led out of hell. I would not have survived the last few years without that grace, without my faith. I would not have come out of it without being jaded and cranky and bitter. But not only have I survived it, I believe I am doing much better than I ever did before because of that grace and faith. I know that I am a better, more whole person because of my experiences, and in particular because God did stand with me through all of it and lead me gently, with love, with grace out of that hell. I am not bitter. I am not cynical. I have not been made into a sarcastic and jaded person. Instead, I have been transformed through my experience into a person who sees God everywhere, in every breath I take, in every interaction with others, in every new opportunity to meet people and to connect with people and to walk and live and laugh and play with God and God's people. Rather than feeling easily hurt and easily angered by the personal injustices that come our way all the time, every day, I instead see more easily when good and amazing things come my way that are undeserved and show up for no reason whatsoever. I am much quicker at embracing life. I don't worry so much about what must be done and instead live much more fully in each moment knowing that we just don't know what is coming in the next moment and so we may as well enjoy and embrace and give our most to others during this moment. For example, in the last 24 hours - I had donuts for breakfast this morning - something I would not have done in the past - but I just felt like donuts, so that is what we did. I took my daughter to the movies yesterday - just because I could. I invited a stranger to be a friend last night - something that would have been scary for me before, but last night felt natural and full of hope and possibility. I opened my window just a few minutes ago to let out a moth that was trapped inside my office - just because it looked like it wanted to be free, and I found great joy in letting it go back into the world. I see God in smiles and hugs and goofy behavior. I forgive more quickly. I let go of pain and problems more quickly. People who used to annoy me don't anymore because life is too short to be easily annoyed, and because it is so much easier to see the good now in people. I see each day as full of possibility and new opportunities to see God in new ways. That is grace. I have been set free by Grace. I have been saved - literally, by grace. And yes, by my faith that has opened me to the grace - again, not because God withholds but because we embrace it better when we are open to see through our faith.
I don't know what led the pastor with whom I am talking to his personal theology. But I know what has led me to mine - a constant experience of the Divine that I simply cannot deny, an experience of Grace that is beyond expectations and even hopes. I am so grateful for that experience. And I would wish for everyone that they, too, might find that grace in whatever way it comes to them.