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A Subtle Mercy

Yesterday was a quiet day at home and my wife was doing some sorting and cleaning around the house.  Around mid-afternoon, she emerged from one room with a large stack of papers and presented them to me with a little smile on her face.  I looked at the first page on the stack and knew why she was smiling.  The pile of paper was a prayer journal that I had kept during my mid twenties.  During this apparently pious (and prolific!) period of my life, I journaled nearly every day, filling a number of thick notebooks with my religious musings, longings, entreaties, and expressions of thanks.

It was fascinating, at the outset of a new year, to revisit significant periods of my life through the lens of my own prayers.  From our journey through infertility and adoption to significant education and career transitions for ourselves and those we love to the many ordinary ups and downs of church and marriage and work and play, prayer was the context in which each of these experiences was negotiated.  No matter how inarticulate or selfish or misguided or just plain wrong my words may have been at various points, a common thread of God’s fidelity and guiding presence was obvious throughout.

It was also a bit strange to leaf through these journals again.  In some ways, it felt like I was reading someone else’s words.  At times, I barely recognized the idealistic, zealous, and somewhat naive young man behind them.  But there were other times where the struggles, joys, pains of a life of faith were all too familiar.  As I was reading yesterday, there were times when I found myself thinking, “hmm, haven’t made too much progress on that in the last decade…”  It was a bit discouraging, at times, to see how little I have changed in some areas.  It isn’t easy to become the people we aspire to be, I suppose.  Sometimes the change in our lives that we want or expect comes—or at least seems to come—at a downright glacial pace.

One of the interesting things about reading personal prayers from a decade ago was being reminded of some of the books I was reading at the time.  Some of these make me shudder today, others were a pleasant  and welcome reintroduction.  Among those that would fall into the latter category was Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. And it is her words about change and God’s way of working in the world that have provided a welcome framework through which to approach a new year:

But they also reveal a basic and valuable truth about conversion—that we do not suddenly change in essence, magically becoming new people, with all our old faults left behind.  What happens is more subtle, and to my mind, more revealing of God’s great mercy.  In the process of conversion, the detestable parts of our selves do not vanish so much as become transformed.  We can’t run from who we are, with our short tempers, our vanity, our sharp tongues, our talents for self-aggrandizement, self-delusion, or despair.  But we can convert, in its root meaning of turn around, so that we are forced to face ourselves as we really are.  We can pray that God will take our faults and use them for the good.

Over time, I have learned two things about my religious quest:  First of all, that it is God who is seeking me, and who has myriad ways of finding me.  Second, that my most substantial changes, in terms of religious conversion, come through other people.  Even when I become convinced that God is absent from my life, others have a way of suddenly revealing God’s presence.  When I think of how the process works, I recall the scene at Calvary, as depicted in John’s gospel, when Jesus sees His mother standing near a disciple.  “Woman,” he says to her, “here is your son. (And he says) to his disciple, ‘Here is your mother’” (John 19:26-27). It is through Jesus Christ, and the suffering Christ at that, that God seeks us out and gives us to each other.

I’m not really one for New Years resolutions, but I suppose if I had to make one for 2011, it would be to look more carefully, to listen more attentively, and to respond more determinedly to the subtle mercies through which God changes his people and his world.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Very real and inspirational. Thank you, Ryan.

    I’ve come to a roadblock of sorts these past few years. That place where my faith is real and active but still mostly self directed. Still mostly self interested. I feel like there is an important threshold to cross and I can’t or won’t. I believe, I am devotional but I am not Christian to my soul. I still “wear” Christianity, I’m still putting it on. I know this is so because I can take it off when it suits me. Particularly when it’s rules and precepts; it’s disciplines, conflict with my desires.

    Grace is mostly a subtle thing, so is sin. It is a sad thing indeed when we take no notice of either.

    I like that this post reflects on prayer and the importance of listening. I’ve thought for some time now that, “crossing the threshold” depends very much on these two attributes.

    After what seems sometimes like too many years, I still have a long way to go and much to learn.

    January 3, 2011
    • Grace is mostly a subtle thing, so is sin. It is a sad thing indeed when we take no notice of either.

      Well said, Paul. Thanks for this. Like you, I still have much to learn about “putting it on.”

      January 3, 2011
  2. Thanks for this personal look back, Ryan. It resonates completely with the experiences, including shudderings, I have had when I look back into my journals (and sometimes published writing too!) A good reminder I guess that we always have a context in which we live and work, and which we express. It’s all rather humbling. But I like the framework you suggest for moving into 2011, and as Paul also affirms, listening and seeing those “subtle mercies.”

    January 3, 2011
    • Yes, it’s important not to disdain our contexts, isn’t it? And, probably, to remember that God does not depend upon our eloquence or coherence to work in and through us :).

      January 3, 2011
  3. Ken #

    Re: “the subtle mercies through which God changes his people and his world.”

    Among them is scripture. As you and Paul and others have alluded, the mercies also come with judgments. Together they transform us, leading us to make “resolutions,” for example.

    I just began reading “Why Scripture Matters” by a Presbyterian theologian, John P. Burgess, (which, incidentally, I bought at a substantial discount in final closing days of one of the last few great independent booksellers here in San Diego – a so subtle grace.) The book concerns how scripture is read (when it is occasionally read) in the PCUSA and other liberal denominations, and how it could be read. Among other things, it raises topics like James and Mennoknight have argued in other places on your blog – how to discern the meaning of scripture and whether or not it has more than one meaning.

    Burgess quotes Kathleen Norris from articles she wrote in Christian Century in which she argued that the church must recover language that is full of “metaphorical resonance.” She wrote that such language “is not designed to convince the reader of a certain point of view,” but “to express truths that can be revealed only through metaphor.” (I don’t know which church she was referring too that is in need of such recovery.) Metaphor – subtle grace, subtle judgment, that yet penetrates deeply into a heart.

    Burgess describes scripture as sacramental and poetic-like in the sense that it is an “invitation to construe the world in a different way.” He adds, “scripture, like great poetry, is inexhaustible in meaning. One can always return to it and find something more. Different interpreters can probe the same text in different ways; the same interpreter can return to a text months or years later and find new meaning in it.” New graces. New judgments.

    January 4, 2011
    • Well said, Ken. There are indeed some truths that can only be received—or, at least, are best received—through metaphor. I fear that there is much that is lost when we flatten the texts of Scripture and insist on reading them according to what we think they should say and how we think they should say it.

      (I, too, welcome the subtle graces of discovering good books in good places :). )

      January 4, 2011

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