On Saturday, I had the opportunity to do a dry run of a talk I am giving on a Walk to Emmaus weekend. These are 3 day retreats that use 15 talks and small group discussion, among other things, to offer folks a chance to grow in faith and discipleship. I am giving the talk on prevenient grace.
I used an image I read in a book by Steve Manskar. The image of grace- prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying- can be analogous to the front porch, doorway, and main rooms of a house. The front porch is prevenient grace- the grace into which we are born, before we even know there is grace. This is the grace that comes before, the grace that leads us to faith, the grace that is at work before we even recognize it is there. It is by God's prevenient grace that we discover the doorway to the household of faith- this is justifying grace. Justifying grace is when we walk through the door, and are set right with God. This is how we enter into relationship with Christ. It may a moment of walking through a door, or it may be like a long hallway (like me). Then sanctifying grace is the grace that makes us more holy, more like Christ, and allows us to grow into the person God intends for us to be.
As I was sharing this talk, I wove in some of my personal experiences of Grace. I talked about how I had questions that kept me from faith while I was in college. These included some of the biggies, like "if Christianity is the 'right' religion, then why does every human community in history and in the present have its own religious system, all claiming authority?" and "if God is so good and so powerful, why does God allow such things as the Holocaust to happen?"
For me, a big part of grace was realizing that I could experience being loved by God's people, and glimpse God's love for me, even with my questions intact. I shared that I still have questions about faith, and that this is OK. I am not God.
During the feedback time, every group commented that my honesty about still having questions was a really good thing, something they appreciated hearing, and expect that the folks on the weekend will resonate with. One woman even commented that the three-fold grace finally clicked for her (thanks Steve Manskar)
I left there reminded of how important it is to be honest about the walk of faith. This was the sole advice of a teacher I once had. "Amy, just be honest with people." I think this is why I struggle so much with fundamentalist expressions of faith. There seems little room for questions.
I was talking about this with a friend of mine. She commented about someone she is acquainted with who rubs her the wrong way because she finds him arrogant. (He is very theologically conservative.) I had this flash of thought: it requires a certain amount of arrogance to claim so much certainty about God.
I think this is why, every week, I have a certain amount of trepidation about preaching. God help me if I seem to have all of the answers- only God does. And it is my experience thus far that there are all kinds of questions for which we have not been given clear answers. I have become comfortable with that; I think mystery is preferable to any alternative. In mystery, there is plenty of love, which is all I really need (most days).
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who writes about unsatisfying answers to the "theodicy" question...this is the fancy term for "why do bad things happen to good people?" also known as "if God is good and powerful, why do things like the Holocaust happen?"
He writes this:“It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation”