For almost twenty-two years I spoke with a profound speech impediment. Born without a soft palate, I lacked the physical equipment needed to make a proper “s” sound. Everything I said had a nasal quality, and the “s” was entirely unrecognizable.
When you’re talking, your soft palate is supposed to close off the nasal cavity and channels your breath out through your mouth. My breath just kept traveling up into and then out of my nose. I had no way to stop it.
Speaking in public filled me with dread, especially around strangers. Bullies had antagonized me for years, people often treated me as mentally disabled, and a few adults were plainly unkind. For instance, one teacher had told me several times to repeat myself when I was explaining my work. Finally, she said, “Come back when you learn to talk.”
These everyday experiences left me feeling like I was on the outside looking in. I developed a persistent spiritual ache. A loneliness laced with cynicism and bitterness.
Just before my twenty-second birthday I went under the knife for six hours of reconstructive surgery. As a result of the operation, I spoke normally within days. My spiritual ache? That took longer. And it wasn’t the medical procedure that started mending my soul. Faith is doing that. Or to be more precise, my relationship with the risen Christ has been making me whole.
Sometimes people define faith as asserting the correct doctrines, adhering to a strict set of moral principles, and sincerely participating in the approved spiritual practices. Don’t get me wrong. There’s an important role in the life of faith for doctrine, morality, and worship. But it’s important to remember what that role is.
We don’t recite creeds, behave ethically, and spend time praying in order to win God over. They are not achievements we hope to trade for a divine reward. God’s love for us is not transactional. It’s never a response to what how we think or what we do. In fact, this gets the cart before the horse.
They are our responses to God’s initiative, marks of our openness to God’s unrelenting, unearned love for us. Nadia Bolz-Weber put it like this. “The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us.” (Pastrix, p. 49)
Theology is the community’s reflection upon the divine self-revelation. We obey the moral law out of love for God and love of neighbor. In worship we give ourselves back to the one who loved us first. To roughly paraphrase Richard Rohr, the life of faith is not about changing God’s mind about us. It’s about letting God’s love for us change who we are right down to our toes.
Detractors once criticized Jesus for rubbing elbows with sinners. Here’s what he said in response: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13) He’s echoing the Law and the Prophets. For instance, Hosea said, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
It’s entirely possible to insist on the truth of a set of doctrines because we like to be right. Moral codes can be used to control others. And worship can be an insincere social gesture. Jesus is telling us that the life of faith is about love. God loves us. In response to that love, disciples love God and love neighbor.
People sometimes ask me why I believe in Jesus in the first place. I frequently answer by saying that I’ve come to see that Jesus believes in me. He believed in me when my cynicism and my bitterness prevented me from loving him and obscured from me the ache in the souls around me. He keeps showing up in my life even when I get too busy or distracted or self-absorbed to show up for him.
Over time, his unwavering love has mostly freed me from cynicism and bitterness. Every now and then that old feeling that I’m on the outside looking in creeps back in. Jesus’ love reminds me that, in him, there are no insiders or outsiders. There’s just God’s beloved.
Let me be honest, I need that reminder. And while I’m at it, I admit that I need an additional reminder. Each person I meet is God’s beloved. Clearly, some people will not act like. Mercy is all about acting like I can still see the face of Jesus in them, even when they can’t see it in themselves.
Okay, it’s not so easy to show mercy to people who hate, to people who intentionally harm others, or to people who gleefully enrich themselves at the expense of others. But let me tell you something that a friend once told me.
A meth addict had barged into a worship service she was leading. He was loud, disruptive, and threatening. After a couple of minutes, he stormed back out, slamming the door behind him. She prayed, “Well, Jesus, you better show me what you love about this guy. Because I’m sure not seeing it.”
It’s a good prayer. And I’ve added a phrase since I first heard it. “Help me remember that somebody has probably said this prayer about me.”
This week I’m beginning a new thing here at the blog. I’ll be reflecting (mostly) on Scripture lessons a week or so in advance. I hope that this may be helpful in sermon prep for my preaching friends. This essay draws on the readings for Proper 5 Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.