Monday, August 31, 2009

Back in the old days, when I was Dr. Myrtle, I would teach my students about the three aspects of conversation.

#1: Collaboration: In order to have a conversation, there must be at least two people who agree to share the talking and listening between them.

#2: Negotiation: Within the conversation, there is a sometimes tacit, sometimes direct negotiation that happens between the participants. Both cannot be talking at once. Both cannot be listening at once. Someone talks, the other(s) listen. In the case of a multi-person conversation, that negotiation can happen lightening fast, but there is always give and take between the participants.

#3: Intersubjectivity: Now this is a fancy term for I know that you know that I know what you mean. It is shared knowledge between the participants. You could sit next to two lawyers or two sports writers and their conversation might sound as if they are speaking gibberish for all the cant shared between them, words and acronyms that are germane to their background. But intersubjectivity is also more subtle. It is the place where people can finish each other's sentences or where one can just start a thought and have it completed in the other's mind if not mouth. The shared knowledge can be subject matter, experience, race, religion, etc. If the participants do not have intersubjectivity, then the conversation is doomed.

I have come to the distressing conclusion that many of my conversations with Pastor D, despite his nothing-less-than-valiant efforts to teach and to help, end up less than ideal because we do not always have intersubjectivity. Now, I would like to blame this on just my past. While he has listened to a lot, much of what I have experienced is just plain foreign to him. So, I would like to blame the intersubjectivity problem on that, but I am cannot escape the belief that it is more, disturbingly more.

We are both Christians. We both stand beneath the Augsburg Confession. We both cite the Creed. We both believe in the same God, the same Son, and the same Holy Spirit. We both pray the Lord's Prayer. We both agree that the Book of Concord is true and pure teaching of scripture. We should, therefore, be talking apples to apples, oranges to oranges.

Ah, but we do not.

It is not that anything is truly different, but one is veneer and the other is substance. Take the word sinner. In the Protestant churches of my past, I have always heard that I am a sinner. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We live in a fallen world. We are fallen creatures. This is taught. This we share. But there is a whole world of difference between assuming the label and fully understanding what that means.

There is death in being a sinner. There is freedom as well, for those sinners who are also children of Christ.

I really like the harsh words Pastor S used in his message on baptism I posted the other day:

It exposes, accuses, and punishes your sin: your lust, your greed, your selfishness, your pride, your fear and doubt; the hardness of your heart; the grudges that you bear and harbor; the grasping of your hands, and the dark confusion of your head.

What a wonderful portrait of our sin. Not something that was inflicted upon us by Adam and Eve, but the very core of who we are. I like, too, the reminder that sin is more than just actions; it is also our thoughts and feelings and intentions and motivations and longings and that which we idolize and so, so much more. Try as we might, we cannot escape our depravity.

Now...I know...I know I am going to fumble this...but the point I am trying to make is that I have always heard that I am a sinner, but I did not really understand what that meant before I started studying Lutheran doctrine. Yes, I knew that meant that I deserved eternal death, that I deserved hell after this life. Yes, I knew that because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, because of His sinless passion and death, taking on the sin of the world, taking on my sin, I will have eternal life.

But the distinction Luther makes, eschewing the works doctrine that had crept into the church, was that since we are sinners, we cannot fear and love and trust God without the help of the Holy Spirit. If we could, then we would not need Christ's sacrifice. We could just work mightily on our own and achieve holiness that way.

So, what do I mean about the difference between hearing I am a sinner and understanding I am a sinner, where is that freedom? Well, if I am a sinner, I can do nothing good apart from Christ, I cannot even want to do so without the help of the Holy Spirit. This is a given with Lutherans. Just as the sky is blue and the grass is green, they understand that apart from God they can do nothing. Hence, the freedom.

Freedom from the crushing weight of futile labor to make yourself better, to achieve godliness, to find the right path toward salvation. There is only one path: the cross. That question that bothers me so much. It is a given with Lutherans. The answer is always only by the grace of God will I. Only by the grace of God will I love others, keep His commandments, and do good. Only by the grace of God, for apart from that lovely, amazing Objective Grace, grace that depends not one bit on my wretched depraved soul, I can do nothing. It is not expected of me to even try, for Luther so eloquently and yet simply wrote of the anguish of such futility.

It was because of this very anguish that he encouraged pastors to offer and parishioners to seek the gifts of Christ given in baptism, communion, and confession/absolution: salvation, His very body and blood, forgiveness...grace and mercy bestowed upon us to renew and refresh and sustain us in this evil world.

So, what I am saying is that there are givens in Lutheranism that ought to be throughout all Christianity, but sadly are not. Given: we are all sinners and therefore can do nothing on our own. Given: In Christ, we are forgiven. Given: That forgiveness removes our sins from us as far as the East is from the West, the two that can never meet. Given: Because of that forgiveness, God sees us not in our sin, but through the Cross. Given: He does not desire for poor sinners to struggle with that which He has already had victory over. Given: He offers us grace and mercy and peace, the likes of which the world will never understand, but which can cover all, endure all, sustain all.

In my godparents, Pastor, Pizza man (JM), others from the church, and the pastors I have been reading online, there are these givens. Givens I believe Pastor assumes I know, ones I walk in because I am a child of Christ. But what has been inculcated in me is that I must enlarge my faith, that I must limit my failures in faith, that I must work hard so as to be better. See all those I's? They belie the truth: only by the grace of God will I. Because it is only by His grace, I am free from the futility, from the failure. Not that I will not fail, because I will. I am a sinner, after all. But I am not expected to do anything on my own and when I do fail, I will be forgiven. Because I am forgiven.

At Pastor's suggestion, I contacted one of those other Lutheran Pastors and asked him about the question, asked him about saying I intend. He charged me to not neglect the "by the grace of God." No one is asking a poor sinner to reform themselves; we ask poor sinners to rely on the grace and mercy of God, who strengthens us to do what we could not do without Him.

Get that? Poor sinner? Another given I have found with Lutherans: compassion for those in sin, for the battle we face being sinners, for the despair we become mired in without the mercy of Christ. They have compassion, I believe, because they are so acutely aware of their own condition. They do not flee from talk of sin...or from sharing of burdens.

So great is his compassion for me, a veritable stranger, this pastor prayed for me and entreated me to contact him again any time I was in need. I did ask a few more questions, which he thoughtfully answered.

In one of his emails, he suggested that I consider the following quote from Luther:

“I wish to know the condition of your heart, whether you have at last come to loathe your own righteousness and desire to rejoice in the righteousness of Christ and to be of good cheer because of it. For in these days the temptation to presumptuousness is very strong, particularly in those who strive with might and main to be righteous and godly and do not know of the altogether immaculate righteousness of God which is freely given in Christ. As a result of this they are searching for something good in themselves until they feel they can pass muster before God as people who are properly adorned with virtuous and meritorious deeds – all of which is impossible. While you were with us, you held this opinion, or rather this error, just as I did. For my part, I am still wrestling with this error and am not quite rid of it yet. Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ – Christ Crucified. Learn to sing praises to Him and to despair utterly of your own works. Say to Him: Thou, my Lord Jesus, art my righteousness; I am Thy sin. Thou hast taken from me what is mine and hast given me what is Thine. Thou didst become what Thou were not and madest me to be what I was not. Beware of your ceaseless striving after a righteousness so great that you no longer appear a sinner in our own eyes and do not want to be a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners. He came down from heaven where He dwelt in the righteous, for the very purpose of dwelling in sinners also. Ponder this love of His and you will realize the sweetest consolation.”

I admit that I have struggled with understanding the reason behind giving me this quote to consider, wondering if he was telling me that my struggle with that question was actually me being self-righteous. Could that be? I felt like it is more an acute knowledge of just how miserably I fail at faithfulness. I felt like it would be a lie to say I intend to do something when I know full well that I spend far more time living Romans 7:15 than Philippians 4:6-8.

But, ah, remember those givens!

Well, he emailed a clarification for this poor sinner:

The reason I sent you the Luther quote was because of the excellent way he warns against scrounging up inside of ourselves a feeling that we can at last pass muster before God. When we're really being confronted by the Law we can NEVER do that. It's just impossible. And the question of "intent" was framed by those who knew that. Our intentions are no purer than any other part of us; intentions too must often be forgiven.

Pass muster! I could accuse him of talking with Pastor about me for all the mustering I have tried to do with finishing catechism, in demonstrating that I knew enough for the alter, but while I know they are brothers in Office and, at least, know of each other, this pastor does not know who I am or who Pastor is. All he knew and cared was that I was in need of help and he could do so with God's Truth.

So, my anguish about that blasted question, my despair over seemingly never reaching the alter, was essentially needless. When Pastor is ready to ask me again, I know I can say, yes! For it is not I who will be doing that which I say I intend, but the Holy Spirit working in me.

Oh, how I wish I better understood those givens!

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