29 October 2023
In a little book, a collection of religious humour, William Willimon writes about a family by the name of Fulp. They live in a sparsely populated corner of southern Iowa.
One October, the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches in town get worked up over evangelism and launch a big community crusade to attract “the unchurched.” The Lutherans are worked up to, but since they are between pastors, they do not participate.
The remaining churches buy billboard advertising with a phone number “the unchurched” are to call. The Methodists and Presbyterians also hire church consultants.
It turns out that their county does not have many unchurched, and that the Fulps, an average and reasonably happy family, are it.
Since the Fulps are the primary target, the churches focus all their attention on them: the women call Mrs Fulp regularly, the Sunday Schools weekly send we’ve missed you cards to the four Fulp children, the business men call Mr Fulp, and on Saturdays the merchants in town look out for the Fulps to invite them to church the next day.
The Fulps are a little overwhelmed by the attention. The little Fulps start attending church, the result of which is that they are hardly ever home anymore. Mrs Fulp now spends most of her days talking on the telephone with the women from the various churches or else listening to her latest cassette of The Total Woman. Mr Fulp stops making the weekly pilgrimage into town on Saturdays with his family since he feels harassed in every store they shop. And after a three hour argument one night over prevenient grace Mr and Mrs Fulp stop speaking to each other.1
It gets worse from here.
It would be a delightful little story, were not so sad, and if we could not see some truth in it.
Christians, it turns out, are not perfect, and Christian communities can be places that lack in grace, apparently no matter how much they talk about it.
Thinking about grace for this Reformation Sunday, I revisited Philip Yancey’s 1997 book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” Yancey is an evangelical Christian and writes to and from within that community.
In one chapter he writes about a man he calls Big Harold. He and his brother call him Big Harold because after the death of their father from polio when they were very young, Big Harold each week would spend part of a day with them. Big Harold was a member of the congregation Yancey’s family attended.
It seemed an act of grace for Big Harold to turn toward them. Yancey and Big Harold stayed in touch for many decades. But Yancey writes that as he grew up he realized that Big Harold was somewhat odd, something that had escaped him when he was younger. He writes, “Big Harold was obsessed about morality and politics. The United States, he believed, would soon fall under the judgment of God because of its permissiveness. … Big Harold hated black people.” By the time desegregation arrived Big Harold had two children of his own and he could not bear the thought of sending them in a bus full of black children to a school run by secular humanists. Eventually he and his family emigrated to South Africa. Many years later Yancey travelled to South Africa and – since he was already there – decided to visit him. When Yancey and his wife arrive they find Big Harold in jail. It turns out that he is not the person he wanted others to be. It would have been a humiliating experience for Big Harold. They continue to exchange letters. Yancey writes, “Several years have passed and never again have I detected the slightest sign of humility in his letters.
Saddest of all, I have never detected any sign of grace. Big Harold was well schooled in morality. For him, the world divided neatly into the pure and the impure, and he kept drawing the circle tighter and tighter until finally he could trust no one but himself. Then he could not trust himself. Perhaps for the first time in his life he found himself in a place where he had nowhere to turn but grace. Yet as far as I could see, he never turned there. Morality, even flawed morality, seemed a safer place.”2
Yancey writes about the Evangelical community, his own community. But the point he is making is not for Evangelicals alone.
The Christian faith has often been mistaken as offering certainties. In a world that feels more and more uncertain, and in our need for certainty we have God taking sides, forgetting that God is the God of all.
In The Brothers Karamazov the Russian writer Dostoevsky has one of the characters tell of
Christ’s return in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. Jesus appears as 100 heretics have just been burned. When an old man pleads, “Lord, heal me that I may see you,” Jesus gives him sight. As a coffin containing a dead child is carried into the cathedral church, the grieving mother pleads with Jesus and Jesus raises her child. Although Christ does not speak, all who see him recognize him.
The Grand Inquisitor watches from a distance and commands Jesus’ arrest. Jesus is sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him.
Recalling Jesus’ temptation by Satan, the Grand Inquisitor affirms that Jesus should have seen the wisdom of Satan and turned stones into bread, since people will always follow those who fill their bellies and those capable of working miracles. He accuses Jesus to have rejected bread, miracles, and the power Satan had offered him and by doing so to have given humanity a freedom that humanity is incapable of. Nothing was more painful for people than the freedom of conscience, to distinguish good from evil. Had Jesus conceded to the devil, humanity would have been spared this agony. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that the church has corrected his failings.
It is Reformation Sunday and we remember Martin Luther’s discovery of grace. Luther had been plagued by the fear of God’s justice, what the Apostle Paul calls the righteousness of God. (Romans 1:17) Luther had believed this righteousness to be the justice with which God judged the world, and he knew he did not measure up. But Luther learns that the righteousness of God does not mean the righteousness with which God judges, but the righteousness that God gifts. It is a righteousness both gifted in faith and leading to faith, as written in Habakkuk and referenced by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1, “the righteous live by (…) faith.” We are not righteous of our own accord but in and through Christ God makes us righteous. That is the gift. That is grace.
This grace gives us freedom. Freedom from sin, but also freedom to distinguish good and evil, and freedom to live lives of grace. I do not believe that it is possible to accept the grace of God and remain unchanged, I know that it is possible to intellectually accept the concept of God’s grace and live lives that do not bear witness to this grace. Think of the churches that got together for evangelism and ruined the lives of the Fulps, or think of Big Harold. One does not even have to reject Christ as outwardly as the Grand Inquisitor.
Last summer, in a talk on The Little Way of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the theologian William Cavanaugh said that our world thinks in ways of fixing the world. Fixing the world requires that we know what is wrong with it. Cavanaugh calls this the “Big Way” – as opposed to St Thérèse’s “Little Way.” He says, “What I mean by the Big Way is akin to what anthropologist James Scott calls ‘seeing like a state,’ that is, the attempt to survey complex social realities from above. Large-scale change imposed from above requires simplifying the reality on the ground…[But] Such schemes for large-scale change are always sold on the basis of greater efficiency, … Such well-meaning schemes to improve the human condition often fail because they ignore the practical knowledge of the local people, but they are favored by those in power because they enhance their power in ways that listening to the locals does not.”
Prayer,3 Cavanaugh says, means to begin with the acknowledgment that we are not in control. And such prayer leads to belief. And so we are back with Luther because the grace God offers us in Christ becomes ours in the act of believing.
Cavanaugh says that we don’t generally come to believe in God at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning about God’s existence. We believe in God because we have an experience of God in prayer. Paul’s word for faith,(…), is not just the abstract belief in the existence of something, as one would believe that the capital of North Dakota is Bismarck, but rather signifies trust and confidence in God.
And thinking about the certainties we wish for, we wish to impose on others, the certainties we ascribe to our faith are a lot like the ‘Big Way’. Cavanaugh says, “At the root of the Big Way is the belief that God will not act so we must, either because God is distant and inscrutable or because God does not exist at all. I suspect that Christian activism is sometimes motivated by fear that there really is no God. If there is no God, then at least we can make ourselves useful to the world by throwing our energy behind various social causes.”4
And so we see that this search for certainties and this embrace of the Big Way is not the prerogative of only conservative parts of the church, but that it is a temptation for us all not to live by faith and trust but instead by our own problem solving. It is not that we should not try to solve problems or make the world a better place, but to attempt so only recognizing that we are not in control and that anything we do happens before the backdrop of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. In the end, only God can make this world a better place. To know that is grace.
A prayer in our Evening Prayer service says about as much. Let us pray:
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.5
1 “The Evangelization of a Family Named Fulp” – A Parable, with apologies to E.B. White and the Church Growth Movement, in And the Laugh Shall Be First – a Treasury of Religious Humour, compiled by William H. Willimon, 1986 Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, pp 74-79
2 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 1997 Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, page 213ff
3 Cavanaugh’s talk is structured around the Prayer of the last Elders of Optina
4 William T. Cavanaugh, Prayer of the Last Elders, Ekklesia Project keynote, 9 July 2022; also see Richard Beck, Prophets Who No Longer Believe in the Lord: Why We Need More than Sentimental Nihilism
5 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition, Minneapolis, MN: 2006 Augsburg Fortress, page 317