When our lives feel like painful blow after painful blow, we need a sense of the reality of God. I recently revisited a book I read in seminary thirty years ago or more by my preaching professor, Ian Pitt-Watson. In it, he shares some lines from Paul Tillich about experiencing the grace of God.
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.” *
So much in these lines sounds like the year I’ve just lived. I haven’t always sensed grace striking me in it all, but grace has been present nonetheless. Tillich brings us home when he urges:
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now, perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed” *
God takes generous initiative towards us. Grace strikes us. Too often, in his last year, my attention has been focused on my own initiative, effort, energy, or intentions (or my lack of such). These human dynamics can be good and God-given realities, but they are real because they are response.
And one way to receive the grace that strikes us in so many different ways is to simply embrace God’s acceptance of us. God receives us here and now just as we are. God is withholding acceptance until some moment when I finally change in some way I need.
*Paul Tillich. The Shaking of the Foundations, pp. 161-62, quoted in Ian Pitt-Watson. Preaching: A Kind of Folly. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976, p. 9-10.
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