Richard Baxter, a 17th Century Puritan, had this advice for preachers. "Preach as if a drowning men to others who are also drowning." Reportedly, the great preacher John Donne kept those words of advice before him in his pulpit whenever he preached.
I feel that way about some of my sermons. Sometimes I feel like I'm finding my way out a cave where I've been lost into the light of day. I want to share what I've discovered. This is one of those sermons. I preach it not only in the hope that it may benefit at least some of you, but also because I need to remind myself of what I think I know.
When I was in the 9th grade, my best friend, David Hutchinson, told me something that has stayed with me ever since. He told me how impressed he had been by meeting an elderly man, a religious man, a gentle soul who seemed to be so kind and so loving and so authentic that David had felt drawn to him. I never met that man or even learned more about him. But that image of an authentic holy man has stayed with me over all those years.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I have discovered that many of the men I have idealized have in reality possessed feet of clay. Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife. Paul Tillich had a collection of child pornography. Two of the leading lights of liberal Methodism, Walker Railly and Barry Bailey had very public unveilings of their acting out of the basest of impulses. And yet, despite these and other disappointments, I still believe in the possibility of personal wholeness or holiness.
But, in part because of the failings of these men, I've concluded that wholeness does not come easily. IÕve come to believe in the inevitability of sin. By sin, I simply mean that I do not do what I think I should and I do what I think I should not.
We may struggle with different issues: anger, jealousy, fear, bitterness, lust, avarice, but I've become convinced that whatever our issue, we all struggle. In my experience, those who claim they donÕt struggle are being dishonest: either with themselves or with the rest of us.
But whether or not you may struggle, I certainly know that I do. I want to be saved from my temptations. I want to be saved from my prison of self-absorption and narcissism. I want to be saved from the traps of consumerism and careerism. I want to be saved from the rat race and bitterness and resentment and anger. I want to be saved from having much so that I can be free to be much.
Living a life of wholeness and integrity and hope is about more than just avoiding temptation, though. It's also about being free to enjoy the warmth of friends, the gift of romantic love, the joy of children, the satisfaction of a job well done. It's about laughter and winks and enjoying the beauty of a sunrise, the sweep of an eagle, the playful attentions of an adoring puppy. But before I can be free I must first clean house.
I want to be like that man my friend spoke of. I want to be whole.
When I was younger I imagined that eventually I would grow up and leave my childish ways behind. I imagined that as a mature adult, I would have the strength of character and will to do the right thing.
I'm still waiting.
I used to believe that if I only learned enough, practiced enough, wanted it enough that I would overcome my weaknesses. I don't believe that anymore.
I don't believe that more willpower or more learning or more determination will make me a better person. Indeed, I've come to believe that the more I resist a temptation, the more attractive I make that temptation until either I fail and yield to the temptation or, worse yet perhaps, become puffed up with pride over my strength of character and moral courage.
What we need is not more will power and determination to resist, but to be changed, transformed from within. Richard J. Foster writes in The Celebration of Discipline 1, "The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside."
I've come to believe that the only way I can become authentically whole is by the grace of God.
The word grace has two meanings depending on the context in which it is used. In a secular context it means beauty or charm of form or expression or movement. In a theological context it means unmerited favor, a divine inspiration or influence acting in one to make one pure and strong.
I'm interested in the theological meaning of grace, i.e. a divine influence that would make me pure and strong.
I don't believe in what has been called the God of Deuteronomy, a separate being who cares about what we do and actively intervenes in history. Instead, my best thinking has led me to believe that God is the symbol we use to represent that of which we are but a part. A system greater than we can comprehend or even imagine yet upon whose resources we can reliably depend. All Life has emerged from this whole, this interdependent web of all existence, this ground of all being. We are as utterly dependent upon it as the grass is upon the earth from which it sprouts.
Although the metaphors are quite different, I believe this is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, the Brahman of the Hindu sage, the Allah of Mohammed, the Tao of Lao-tse. But, whatever the metaphor one employs to describe the holy, what is most important is that we worship the holy and not ourselves.
A central concept of twelve step groups is acknowledging a higher power than one's self. Acknowledging a higher power is a necessary component of recovery because it is an antidote to the illusion of self-control. If an addict believes that he or she can control his or her drinking, then itÕs only a question of when they will begin to drink again. It's only when an addict acknowledges they believe they are powerless to control their drinking that recovery can begin.
I think we are all powerless over sin. Some sins like drug or alcohol addiction are very public and life threatening in their consequences. But other sins like anger or envy or resentment, though they may be less visible and not obviously life threatening can still be quite damaging.
The way to wholeness is through acknowledging a higher power, God or whatever one understand one's higher power to be, and humbly asking that higher power to remove one's defects. When I do this I am changed-from within. It is something that happens to me, a gift, so to speak, that I have not earned. If my temptations lose their hold on me, it is not because of anything that I have directly done. In other words, grace is free.
But on the other hand, grace is not cheap. Although I can't create my own spiritual growth, if I expect to continue to grow I must consciously turn toward my higher power on a regular basis through what are called spiritual disciplines.
Gandhi gave us a good example of practicing spiritual disciplines. Through prayer, simplicity, fasting, worship, and service he acknowledged what was of true worth on a daily basis. I believe it was the source of his greatness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran Pastor who resisted the evil of National Socialism in his country. Recognized as an accomplished scholar in his early twenties, he taught in New York, Barcelona, and London during the years of Hitler's rise to power. But in 1939, while he was on a lecture tour in this country, he chose to return to Germany to be at the side of his own people. Upon his return he joined the underground, convinced it was his duty as a Christian to work for Hitler's defeat. His resistance cost him his life. I took the title and the concept of today's sermon, Grace is free but it's not cheap, from of his best-known books, The Cost of Discipleship. Obviously, Bonhoeffer was prepared to bear that cost. Like Gandhi, he practiced the classical spiritual disciplines on a daily basis.
In a collection of his letters and papers from prison, which have been assembled into a book, Bonhoeffer tells of meeting a French cleric toward the beginning of their careers in the ministry. They discussed their respective hope and dreams and personal aspirations. The Frenchman, as best as Bonhoeffer could tell, was planning on becoming a saint. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, merely hoped he could be faithful.
I, too, have no desire to be a saint, for I find it challenging enough to merely be faithful. I find it difficult to practice any of the spiritual disciplines on a regular basis. It is so easy to be persuaded by the prevailing conventional wisdom that I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul, and that I need not turn to God. It is so easy to imagine that I am too busy to take the time to pray. But, then, often by the imposed discipline of turning out weekly sermons, I am reminded of the other way, the way of all the great religions, and I am persuaded to return again to practicing what for me are the essential disciplines of prayer, meditation, and service. They are the means, the string, to return to my metaphor of finding my way out of the cave, by which I can find my way out of the darkness into the light.
I can't, by my own efforts, make myself whole. Left to my own devices I have failed in my attempts to become whole. Wholeness does not depend on how much willpower or determination or perseverance or knowledge I have. But there is another way and that way is by acknowledging that I am part of something larger than myself upon whose resources I can rely. I'm going to pray on it.
The Price of Grace