A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.

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  1. my heart is just ringing and singing *with* you. you know how i love you? SO.MUCH.

  2. Greetings, from a beautifully sunny Kansas Lent morning. 🙂 I have a few thoughts on this from a theological standpoint. If that doesn’t minister to you right now, perhaps you could file it away for consideration another day. I do think what we believe, doctrinally, very much affects the way we live and that’s why it’s important. God surely forgives all manner of mistaken beliefs as he looks upon our hearts. One of the problems in the theology of atonement comes from the divergence away from foundational work and the insularity of thought that came about after the Reformation. Consider this: (quoted) ”
    In their general conception on the atonement the Reformers and their followers happily preserved the Catholic doctrine, at least in its main lines. And in their explanation of the merit of Christ’s sufferings and death we may see the influence of St. Thomas and the other great Schoolmen. But, as might be expected from the isolation of the doctrine and the loss of other portions of Catholic teaching, the truth thus preserved was sometimes insensibly obscured or distorted. It will be enough to note here the presence of two mistaken tendencies.

    The first is indicated in the above words of Pattison in which the Atonement is specially connected with the thought of the wrath of God. It is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction. But it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6). God’s merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.
    The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

    This view of the Atonement naturally provoked a reaction. Thus the Socinians were led to reject the notion of vicarious suffering and satisfaction as inconsistent with God’s justice and mercy. And in their eyes the work of Christ consisted simply in His teaching by word and example. Similar objections to the juridical conception of the Atonement led to like results in the later system of Swedenborg. More recently Albrecht Ritschl, who has paid special attention to this subject, has formulated a new theory on somewhat similar lines. His conception of the Atonement is moral and spiritual, rather than juridical and his system is distinguished by the fact that he lays stress on the relation of Christ to the whole Christian community. We cannot stay to examine these new systems in detail. But it may be observed that the truth which they contain is already found in the Catholic theology of the Atonement. That great doctrine has been faintly set forth in figures taken from man’s laws and customs. It is represented as the payment of a price, or a ransom, or as the offering of satisfaction for a debt. **But we can never rest in these material figures as though they were literal and adequate. As both Abelard and Bernard remind us, the Atonement is the work of love. It is essentially a sacrifice, the one supreme sacrifice of which the rest were but types and figures. And, as St. Augustine teaches us, the outward rite of Sacrifice is the sacrament, or sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice of the heart. It was by this inward sacrifice of obedience unto death, by this perfect love with which He laid down his life for His friends, that Christ paid the debt to justice, and taught us by His example, and drew all things to Himself; it was by this that He wrought our Atonement and Reconciliation with God, “making peace through the blood of His Cross”.

    I agree with you that teaching children that this was personally ‘their fault’ is too heavy and certainly not accurate. It helps me to remember that Christ was God incarnate. He sacrificed *Himself* due to His love for us. His heart could not bear the separation; yes, He could have chosen another way. But I think He wanted us to know *how much* He loves us. Love, at it’s core, means a willingness to suffer for the loved one. And perhaps if we call to mind a scenario such as the one where a courageous mother sends her son into active duty to fight for all of our rights…..actually, this is what the Virgin Mary did. She suffered alongside Her Son and offered Him up freely for us.

  3. I read this post last night, and was over-whelmed in my agreement. You hit the nail right squarely on the head, Bethany. And what is the best thing about it is that it came straight from your heart. You spoke from the divine within, which doesn’t need quotation marks or arguments. I didn’t read the comment above all the way through because it just began to sound like a bad theology textbook. I hope it doesn’t discourage you from writing your truth. That is what I connect to, and I know that everyone has their own theology and belief system, but what is great is that I don’t choose to read “everyone.” I choose to read what nourishes MY soul, and that is YOU. I am so *with* you…xoxo

  4. I don’t know if it will make any difference to you, but it turned my little world upside down when I learned that Franciscan theology teaches that God would have become man out of love for us, whether we sinned or not. Just because He loved us.

  5. “….the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat”.
    so true.
    i grew up not with the huge guilt and torture you did, but never saw a full beautiful picture like that one painted above.

    and this part– “My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.”

    ….it took my breath away.

  6. Rain – You too, luv, you too.

    HWGK – Thanks for taking the time to share. I agree, doctrine has a lot to do with the way we live… but right now, I’m exploring the reverse — how real, personal brushes with God in my day-to-day life can untangle doctrine for me. It’s my hope that in the future, I’ll be able to come back to theological discussions with a clear mind.

    Megsie – I love you for understanding and seeing my heart through the words. Really, I just love you. 🙂

    Lynn – That’s something my husband grasps a whole lot more easily than I do. There are a lot of ideologies crammed into my mind space, and after awhile, even positive doctrines start crowding out my ability to process love. It’s always encouraging though to know others like you see it. Thanks for your comment.

    Beka – Thank you, sweet friend.

  7. i always appreciate raw honesty, so thank you. i have been sensitive about how i’m presenting Jesus to my children, and how any church we attend is too. we don’t attend regularly which scared me for a while until i realized that i didn’t attend church until i was 19/20 years old, and even then, on and off, and that once i began attending regularly was when i felt my understanding of God twisting and my concepts being manipulated. now that i’m away from it again, is now that i am feeling the freedom that Jesus gave up his life for me to experience. not that i think church is a bad thing, it’s just not for us full-time right now. here’s what i’ve done for “lent”: printed out and cut out this amazing painting “Glory of the Cross” pasted it in my freedom journal and wrote around it “to set me free” “to set me free” “to set me free”. i appreciate too, here, your description of the internet and of how “shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion…” i will not forget your words.

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