"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Shaping Quality of Our Every Moment

Meanwhile, we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.  For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.    ~ II Corinthians 5:2-4

And that long record of our choices -- your
every choice -- is itself the final
body, the eternal dress.
~Scott Cairns, Disciplinary Treatises: 12. The End of Heaven and the End of Hell 

There are those passages of literature or philosophy that have stuck with me, as I make a conscious decision to turn them over in my mind, recognizing their value and wishing to internalize them. One such passage is in Mere Christianity, where C. S. Lewis speaks of our every decision as moving us in one of two directions, shaping us into a creature either more heavenly or more hellish.  It's a passage which first made an impact on me, I suppose, because I took it to express a deep truth that I needed to hear, an articulation of a difficult reality that helped me by encouraging me to face and understand that reality.  It seems I have need to be reminded again.

It is, after all, rather hard to accept; that our every decision is weighed, so to speak.  We are constantly either doing right or wrong, and there is no middle ground, no standing still.  Talk about pressure.  Talk about moralistic legalism.  It reminds me of George Harrison's song "Rising Sun":

On the street of villains taken for a ride
You can have the devil as a guide
Crippled by the boundaries, programmed into guilt
Til your nervous system starts to tilt
In a room of mirrors you can see for miles
But everything that's there is in disguise
Every word you've uttered and every thought you've had
Is all inside your file the good and the bad

But in the rising sun you can feel your life begin...

On the avenue of sinners I have been employed
Working there til I was near destroyed
I was almost a statistic inside a doctor's case
When I heard the messenger from inner space...

Much as I love George (and no matter how good the song), I know I shouldn't be looking to him for theological instruction; other numbers from that same album, his last, Brainwashed, include "Any Road (Will Get You There)" and "P2 Vatican Blues".  The source notwithstanding, isn't it just this kind of slavery that Jesus came to free us from?  To liberate us from the strictures of a moral law that we bent creatures are incapable of keeping?  Thank God for grace, right!  No more pressure, no sweating the small stuff (or any stuff, really), because God has done it all.  We've been justified by faith, and the work is done.  Man, that was, well ... really easy, actually.  (What's that?  Cheap grace?  Yeah, I don't know what you're talking about ...)

The problem is, there's enough truth in that thinking to make it truly dangerous.  Jesus's death and resurrection did indeed free us from the tyrannical impossibility of attempting to justify ourselves before God.  It is through Christ alone that we are justified, restored to right relationship with God.  But grace is not cheap.  The Christian life is not easy.  And with the turning of the soul to God through Christ, the work of sanctification is just begun.  It is the work of being made holy, 'fit for heaven'.  It is a work in which the Holy Spirit leads, but we must choose daily to follow.  It is a work which continues for a lifetime (and I am inclined to believe it may well continue after this mortal life, as well).

It's easy to rationalize away that kind of hard belief when I'm faced with some temptation, some self-serving desire.  After all, I've been forgiven already, right?  It's not like I'm really harming anyone.  Getting so hung up on doing the right or wrong thing -- isn't that like 'works righteousness', or something?

It's interesting how the Holy Spirit draws to our attention those things we need to hear.  I'm a reader, so the Spirit often moves through books to get to me.  It seems I can't pick up a book these days without hearing this theme.  Here's a passage from a sermon by E. B. Pusey:
"Everything may, and does, minister to heaven or hell ... We are, day by day, and hour by hour, influenced by everything around us; rising or falling, sinking or recovering, receiving impressions which are to last forever; taking our colour and mould from everything which passes around us and in us, and not the less unperceived; each touch slight, as impressed by a single spiritual hand, but, in itself, not the less, rather the more lasting, since what we are yielding ourselves to is, in the end, the finger of God or the touch of Satan ... we are receiving moment by moment the hallowed impress of the heavenly hand, conforming our lineaments one by one, each faculty of our spirit, and this poor earthly tenement of our body itself, to the image of God wherein we were re-created, or we are gradually being dried up and withered by the blasting burning torch of the arch-fiend; each touch is of fire,  burning out our proud rebellious flesh, or searing our life; some more miserable falls sink us deeper; some more difficult victories, won by God's help over ourselves, the flesh, the world, and Satan, raise us on the heavenward path; but each sense, at every avenue, each thought, each word, each act, is in its degree doing that endless work; every evil thought, every idle word, and still more, each wilful act, is stamping upon men the mark of the beast; each slightest deed of faith is tracing deeper the seal of God upon their forehead."  
As Pusey describes it, there is a war on for our souls at any given moment, in which we take part, living our lives in such a way as yielding either to "the hallowed impress of the heavenly hand" or else to the "blasting burning torch of the arch-fiend."  No doubt many today (even some in the Church) would find such language dated, superstitious.  But the truth asserted here (and I do believe it so) may be  presented without such stark and colorful religious language.  Thomas Merton said, "A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."  Where Pusey presents to us the unseen spiritual realities, Merton presents the same principle in a manner more pragmatic and observable.  Even someone who is not religious would, I believe, acknowledge that we are shaped by what we desire, what we live for.

In his book Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, Rowan Williams uses the articles of the Creed as a framework for exploring the Christian faith.  The final chapter, then, addresses what Christians believe about 'the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come'.  He writes:
"Death is a nakedness to which we must all come, a spiritual stripping, as we are confronted by God.  The identities we have made, that we have pulled around ourselves like a comfortable dressing gown or a smart suit will dissolve, and what is deepest in us, what we most want, what we most care about, will be laid bare.  We are right to feel apprehensive about that, and we are wrong to brush away the sense of proper fear before God's judgment, however much we dislike the extravagant or hysterical expressions of it that have characterized some ages of Christian history.  To the degree to which we don't know ourselves -- a pretty high degree for nearly all of us -- we are bound to think very soberly indeed of this moment of truth."
However, the great and terrible Day of the LORD, "this moment of truth", is not simply a moment at the end of time, however near or distant that may be.  It is every moment of every day that we submit ourselves to the judgment of Christ; and the way I daily choose to live may be an indicator of the extent to which I am aware of this truth.  Williams continues:
"The coming judgment of Christ is something we have to be aware of day by day, not a remote or mythical prospect in the future.  Every day we have to become accustomed to the truth.  And what happens when all our defenses against the truth are finally taken away? When we have to come to terms with God in some unimaginable dimension where our usual strategies of hiding from ourselves and the rest of reality are not available?  How shall we manage being exposed to God and to our own consciousness as we really are?  The New Testament already speaks of this in terms of 'stripping away' -- St Paul can talk of our final destiny both as a frightening levelling of all we thought we had built or achieved (1 Corinthians 3.11-15, 2 Corinthians 5.1-5), and as a being clothed with a new 'covering' which is Christ's life (1 Corinthians 15. 53-4, and the same passage from 2 Corinthians).  Death means that something is removed that stands between us and God.  But the hope is that if we have accustomed ourselves to living with Christ in this life something has been 'constructed' that allows us to survive the terror of meeting the truth face to face: the truth has come to be, in some degree, 'in us', to use the language of St John's first letter.  At one level, we are left naked and undefended, with nothing of our own to appeal to or hide behind; yet we trust that we are gifted with the clothing, the defense we need."
One effect of all this is the belief that there is no moment or aspect of human life, no matter how fleeting or small, that is insignificant.  Human life truly matters, every bit of it, all the time.  I think this is an incredibly positive realization, and one that cannot but have a profound impact on the way we live our lives and how we relate to every man, woman, and child.  But I can and may still receive all this as a burden, a suffocating mentality in which I never have a moment's rest.  It need not be so.  To say that every moment of my life is shaping me for eternity in one way or another does not mean that I must be constantly and actively engaged in good works (that would not be possible, after all; and, not incidentally, there is an ancient tradition in the Church that regards Christians as called to lives of action, or contemplation, or both; but it is contemplation that is the higher calling).  The key is that, whether active or at rest, in every moment I am with Christ; I have been clothed with Him, have put my trust in Him.  As Williams says elsewhere, "God is at work in the continuing fellowship of flesh and blood human beings who have received Jesus' breath in themselves -- even at the (frequent) moments when they are not doing anything specifically Christlike..."  This is not 'works righteousness', at least not our works; it is the work of God, molding us when we choose to be with Christ.  Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.  Several translations render this verse 'that you believe in him', which unfortunately can give an impression of intellectual assent (even the devils believe) rather than whole-hearted trusting in God, believing Him to be trustworthy.  And so, at the last, because "we are gifted with the clothing ... we need", even Christ Himself, who has been working in us all our lives through to fit us for heaven, we may approach the throne of grace with confidence.  The One we see at the last Day will be our friend, and not a stranger.

I'll close now where I started. Having already considerably wrestled with the issue, I finally grabbed my copy of Mere Christianity and flipped through it until I found the desired passage. As he often does, the sage Lewis spoke to my heart and put the wrestling to rest; or was that You?
"People often think of Christianity as a kind of bargain in which God says, 'If you keep a lot of rules I'll reward you, and if you don't, I'll do the other thing.'  I do not think that is the best way of looking at it.  I would much rather say that every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what is was before.  And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is at harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.  To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power.  To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.  Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other."

O God, the protector of all who put their trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~ BCP, Collect for the Season after Pentecost, Proper 12