“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” survivor Felicia Sanders said. “But may God have mercy on you.”
How in the world can these people from Emanuel AME Church in Charleston be at peace?
How in the world can they have forgiveness in their hearts?
How did they come to possess “the peace that passes understanding”?
The Cycle of Gospel Living
It’s clear that most of us do not have that peace.
We try to talk about racism and violence and the other ills that plague us, but we end up talking past each other and inflaming each other further. The news media and social media erupt with argument and counter-argument.
Even when we are fellow-Christians trying to speak about the Gospel, we do not always help as we had hoped to. We try to “proffer the Word of life,” but we still talk past each other.
The Rev. Eric H. F. Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute teaches about the “Cycle of Gospel Living,” and I believe it can help us in these challenging conversations.
We have studied this cycle in our Education for Ministry groups this year, as we reflect on “Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.”
Take a moment to look at the diagram carefully.
We all participate in the dying and rising of Christ, in the cross and resurrection, but we enter the cycle from different places – the powerless from the bottom, the powerful from the top.
This cycle is reflected in all three of the readings assigned for the Daily Office today:
From the bottom, from complete defeat and disaster for Israel, “The wife of Phinehas said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’” (1 Samuel 4:22)
After speaking to someone on top, a rich young man, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23).
And writing to Christian Jews living in “the Dispersion,” in a variety of different places, James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low” (James 1:9-10).
The Coded Gospel
How in the world can these people be at peace?
How can we come to possess the peace that passes understanding?
“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps…. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).
Through my own experiences in recovery I have heard in the 12 Steps of AA what Richard Rohr calls “the coded Gospel” (Breathing Under Water).
An experience of powerlessness can trigger our awareness that we cannot handle our life alone.
When we admit our powerlessness, we can find reprieve – “a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).
We may even find that our regular spiritual practices become an oasis, rather than a burden.
Sitting in the Oasis
The members of Emanuel AME Church were meeting for their regular Wednesday night Bible study.
They were sitting “in the oasis,” and they welcomed a stranger to join them, even offering him a seat of honor next to their pastor.
As African-American people in South Carolina, they lived in relative powerlessness – even though their pastor was also a state senator, the streets around their church are named for Confederate generals, a constant reminder of slavery and of past and present violence against people of color.
As people of color, their identification with Jesus, their entry into the cycle of gospel living, may have been at the bottom, but their endurance like Jesus, their empowerment by Jesus, and the daily maintenance of their spiritual condition in union with the resurrected Jesus produced in them an oasis, full of living water.
Choosing the Cross
We do not necessarily have the same experience of the Gospel.
Our identification with Jesus, our entry into the cycle of Gospel living, is more likely to start at the top and to require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we enjoy as white people in northeast Wisconsin.
Whether something like addiction calls us up short, whether the death of a loved one brings us low, whether we are cut to the quick by the words of Scripture, our falling and failing will also lead us into “the way of the cross, [which is] none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).
You Cannot Transmit Something You Haven’t Got
So how did they come to possess the peace that passes understanding?
And how can we come to share in the peace that does not “treat the wound of [God’s] people carelessly” (Jer. 6:14)?
The “Big Book” of AA reassures me that “the answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got” (164).
Many people in the Episcopal Church, especially as we prepare for General Convention, are calling us to a preach resurrection and engage in the kind of practices that will get us what we need to transmit.
A Memorial to the Church by the Acts 8 Moment invites the Episcopal Church to:
- recommit itself to the spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life,
- go into our neighborhoods boldly …, and
- restructure our church for the mission God is laying before us today.
And 3 Practices TEC invites us to:
- follow Jesus together
- into the neighborhood, and
- travel lightly
The Spiritual Disciplines at the Core
Like the 12 Steps of recovery, the “spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life” are deceptively simple:
- Celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and Major Feasts
- Pray every morning and evening, soaking yourself in the Scriptures
- Confess your sins to God, and to another person if you need to
- Feast during Christmas and Easter and on Major Feasts; fast during Lent and on Fridays
- Baptize, confirm, and teach new disciples
- Care for each other “in sickness and in health”
And, just like the folks in AA have a “Big Blue Book” we have a “Red Book” (the Book of Common Prayer).
The “daily maintenance of our spiritual condition” is not a depressing burden, as I feared when I first entered recovery.
“You’ve got it all backwards,” a fellow deacon said when I called him in a panic. “Every day you don’t drink is an oasis!”
Rather than being a burden, our spiritual disciplines can create in us an oasis, a place where we are free to greet the stranger whom we meet in our churches or as we follow Jesus out into the neighborhood.
And one last thing, these practices are mostly portable, making it easy to travel lightly.
Sure, we usually gather in a church building on Sundays and holidays, but the book we need for the Daily Office fits easily into a briefcase – in fact, you don’t even need a book, since the Forward Movement iPhone app works just as well!
And soaking daily in the Scriptures means that following God “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … neither is it beyond the sea …. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:14).
The Word is Very Near You
Listen again to that word:
“We enjoyed you … and may God have mercy on you.”
These are the words of a woman who lives in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.
These are the words of someone whose own experience of powerlessness, death, and violence is being transformed by her endurance, empowering her to offer a blessing instead of a curse.
We may not be able to offer those same words – we are not at the same place in the cycle of gospel living – but we can also participate in the resurrection life.
For us it may require a costly admission or an unwelcome realization, and it may require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we hold onto so tightly.
But we, too, can know the peace of Christ, recognize it in our neighbors, and share it with those around us.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among us, and remain with us always. Amen.