Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Tragedy of Bitter Christians



From a popular article I read recently:

"...there’s an adjective for those who go through life disappointed that other people don’t act as we would have them act, a term to describe those of us who blame the world for its failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. [That word is] 'Bitter.'"

To go through life disappointed that other people don’t act as we would have them act.

It’s a dynamic present, certainly, in politics: we grow weary of watching the tired acts of mutual resistance by all parties, mostly for show, aimed at producing by considerable effort inefficiencies sufficient to warrant voting one another out of office. A dynamic present in personal relationships, also: in marriages and friendships, wherein the desire to change the other person leaves one party exhausted and both parties resentful, neither party appreciating the fullness of what they have. Parents have to figure in to this, too, of course, from either end of the dynamic – either disappointed or disappointing, actual or perceived. Teammates and coworkers are an acute example: where one’s own performance is left vulnerable to the performance/behavior of another. And then there are neighbors who won’t keep up the lawn and so bring down the good name, the good standing, of the neighborhood association. And we haven’t even mentioned the bowlers who have not been brought up with the proper etiquette to defer to the bowler already standing in the adjacent lane.

Bitter.

Bitter is the oldest son in tonight’s parable from Luke’s gospel. Bitter at the world, bitter at his brother’s behavior, bitter and embarrassed at the injustice of his father. 

As we attempt to translate this parable, if God is the father and we are either of the two sons, I wonder what it means to find ourselves in the shoes of the oldest son: that is, to be disappointed in God when God does not act as we would have God act. I wonder what we make of God’s failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. (It does feel like God is failing the Episcopalians, uniquely – because nobody thinks of Baptists when they think of propriety and decency – they think of us. It comes with the stuffy reputation.) What do we do when God fails the expectations we have for God? What do we do with God on Good Friday?

Straight to the point, when in your life have you been bitter at God?

I wonder if, like the older brother in the parable, you have ever found yourself feeling taken for granted by God. You show up. You give stuff up for Lent. Not just little stuff, like chocolate, but big stuff. You say your prayers and, generally, forgive the stupid people around you. And for what? For something, presumably. It’s supposed to be Good News. The good news that God saves us unconditionally, but it turns out to be unbearably bad news – or at least especially hard news – to the extent that we want conditional love – or think we do; want to think our faithfulness accrues as frequent pray-er miles; that God’s love for us is a result of our own work. And I am no exception. 

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? All through Luke’s gospel, it doesn’t work that way.

Instead, we get a God who heals on the wrong day, provokes the pious persons, and instructs his followers to love the wrong people. This is no way to run a respectable Kingdom of God. And the ones who grasp this reality most clearly are the ones who have the hardest time with this God. They’re more than confused. They’re bitter. 

The most regularly bitter characters in Luke’s gospel are the Pharisees. By their judgments of others, Jesus points out, they judge the generosity of God as weakness.  Reading a false enmity between the Law’s two great commands with which we’ve been beginning our Lenten worship - love your God and love your neighbor - they judge God and find him wanting. In the famous words of Calvin and Hobbes: “No efficiency. No accountability. I tell you, Hobbes, it's a lousy way to run a universe.” 

But if there is a word for those of us who blame God for his failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency, there is also a word for what happens in the moment God upsets our expectations, a term to describe God’s embarrassing disposition toward his children. That word is "grace."

Grace can be a tricky word to pin down. The Prayer Book catechism defines grace as “God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved: by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” The Prayer Book goes on to explain that we encounter this grace in lots of ways but uniquely in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, whereby we are adopted as God’s children, united to the death and resurrection of his Son, and fed with the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. In Prodigal Son terms, Baptism and Communion are the equivalent of our being welcomed home as God’s children and sitting down to the feast of the fatted calf, respectively.

That’s all well and good, but my enduring image of grace is slightly different: it starts at a silent retreat I attended as a student in grad school. I did not want to be there. Program requirement. A weekend away from my girlfriend. Being holy. In silence. No TV. What’s not to like, right? I showed up cranky and on the edge of bitter. I quickly resolved to be as petulant as possible, and began looking for ways to act out my crankiness. 

Almost immediately, an opportunity presented itself: in the opening session, the chaplain explained that there was a freezer in the retreat facility’s kitchen filled with nearly every kind of ice cream imaginable, and an unlimited supply of spoons and bowls. The freezer would be accessible all weekend. Similarly, she said, chocolate candies were available throughout the facility, seemingly everywhere, and were there for our enjoyment. A symbol, she said, that the weekend was our gift to enjoy.

Well. This was the opportunity for which I had waited. I quickly resolved to devour as much chocolate as possible over the next forty-eight hours, making a mockery of the gift and engaging at least two of the seven deadly sins at all times – greed and gluttony – in order to insulate me from any threat of a spiritual breakthrough. 

This is exactly what I did. At every turn, bowls of chocolate, and I stuffed my mouth, stuffed my pockets. I took them just to take them, sometimes not even bothering to eat them. The silence protected me from accountability, I thought.

But. Not two hours into my exercise of willful rebellion, the chaplain found me. Sat down next to me on a bench in a courtyard. Looked into my eyes. Silently, reached her hands out to me, took my hands in hers, held them a moment, and then...she gave me some more chocolates. With a gentle smile and a hug, she was gone. I wanted to cry.

Grace.

St. Augustine once said that, before the fall, humanity was equally able to sin or not sin; that after the fall, humankind was only able to sin, not able not to sin; that in baptism, we are again able not to sin, but also to sin; that in the heavenly realms, we will not be able to sin, only able not to sin. 

That weekend away on silent retreat, I wanted so badly to sin. But I couldn’t. I was unable. I could not steal, because everything I saw - everything I could covet - had been given to me. I could not hoard from others, because there was more than enough for everyone. I could not even in dwell in shame and self-pity at my own miserableness, because generosity and forgiveness had caught me in the act and embraced me at my worst. 

St. Paul writes: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (not even cranky chocolate hoarding student-misers), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

There is a word for those of us who go through life disappointed in God when God does not act as we would have God act; a term to describe those of us who blame God for his failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. That word is "bitter." And there is also a word for what happens in the very moment God upsets our expectations, a term to describe God’s embarrassing disposition toward his children. That word is "grace." 

And it’s for you.

Amen. 


SFH.3.10.13


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