They say that one of the factors that a person should add to their ‘stress quotient’ is ‘going on holidays’. I came back from holidays remembering some great times, but also being aware of those times when I had not been at my best, because of the stress factors involved in holidays; navigating to new places, negotiating where to go etc.
I was not looking forward to going to Church on Sunday. This is a difficult thing for a priest, because ‘going to Church’ is his or her job! At these times two things happen. One is that I feel like a hypocrite. The other is that I remember admiral Nelson’s message to his sailors before the Battle of
Trafalgar and say to myself ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. Bonhoeffer rightly says that ‘Duty fails as a moral guide: people who act on duty alone can never act on their own, and what happens if the people in charge are the people who need to be stopped? ‘The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too.’ But sometimes, when heart and mind do not make me feel worthy to go into the Church, duty
prevails, and I go of course.
Then a strange thing happened. Each Sunday morning there is a ritual that happens in our household before the ritual of the Eucharist. At 9.30, after coffee, I say to my spouse, Robyn, ‘I’m going in the shower now Pet.’ And then after I’m dressed in my cassock I say ‘I’m going in the Church now Pet.’
So Robyn was still away on Sunday. I had come back early to prepare for Church. As I was about to leave the house I said to the air ‘I’m going in the Church now Pet.’
It was that moment of remembered intimacy, a moment that changed the loneliness of self accusation into the companionship of a shared moment, a moment that sent a message to me of support from another that ‘broke the spell.’ I had some tears, and the frozenness of my then self was melted and I could flow again.
So then came the Eucharist. Once again I was ‘before the face of God’. A God who would hear my asking for
forgiveness, and bless me. A God who would offer me peace, and then
welcome me to the table with other
forgiven sinners. There were the
familiar faces to greet after an absence and there was plenty of catching up to do. There was the opportunity to
farewell some people who were leaving, welcome some visitors, and pray particularly for some one who was in pain.
So after the Eucharist, I felt like a proper person again. I felt like a priest again. The week following has gone well.
All this reminds me once again of a theme that has been rattling around my head ever since we did our study on Martin Luther. This is the theme of
‘Living Before the Face of God’. Once I ‘got it’, it pops up everywhere.
Psalm 73, for example, describes my experience exactly. It tells of a person who is jealous of the rich and the
boastful and those who take no heed of God but seem to prosper and enjoy the good wishes of everyone. He asks
‘Was it for nothing then that I cleansed my heart and washed my hands in
innocence?…I sought to understand this, but it was too hard for me.
Till I went into the sanctuary of God and then I understood what their end will be.’ Later the psalmist says
‘When my soul was soured,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.
Notice how it is the living in the presence of God, it is the ‘being before the face of God’ that calls forth the best in the psalmist.
People often say this in other terms about going to Church. They say ‘It tops up my batteries’ for the coming week. This is another way of saying that being at the Eucharist is a way of re-orienting myself toward God again: just like the psalmist who ‘went into the sanctuary of God.’
The same is true of ‘being before the face of my life’s companion.’ The simple repetition of our ritual ‘I’m going in the Church now Pet.’ Put me in
intimate company again, instead of in punishing isolation. My ‘true’ self was ‘called out’ by that simple phrase.
Bonhoeffer himself as a good
Lutheran repeats this idea at the end of the piece that criticises ‘duty’ by saying . Who stands fast? Only those whose standard for moral action is neither reason, nor principles, nor conscience, nor freedom, nor virtue, but the command of God; those who will lay down their lives at the command of God. Only those who try to live their whole lives as an answer to the question and call of God stand fast.
But this takes active engagement on our part. It is possible to go to Church and let the whole thing wash over you, and have nothing happen. It is those who need God, who come actively seeking and engaged with life, and then with the actions which are invited by the words who will encounter God. God who comes toward us and calls us forth cannot encounter us if there is simply a passive observer there.
That is why I keep saying ‘the responsibility for the Eucharist, the celebrant of the Eucharist in fact is the whole congregation.’ It is why I get frustrated when the ‘and also with you’ is said softly nd with not much engagement.
So again, being a human is not about having a ‘firm and strong individual identity’ that will hold out against all assaults (though that is helpful). Nor is it about being ‘nice’ or compliant or reactive and nasty for that matter. Being human is about living before the face of God on Christ. The ‘self’ that I am is then the ‘self’ that is called forth by God’s ‘being toward me’ that I experience.
Sometimes that ‘being toward me’ is one of a clear telling e the truth about myself, which requires strength to bear. Sometimes God’s being toward me is welcoming and generous and forgiving. Whatever the case it is my ‘self’ who is called into being by the presence of God in Christ which needs to be invited into existence each moment.