It’s Grace + Nothing!

Robert Farrar Capon 1925 – September 5, 2013

Anyone who knows me at all knows how much I am indebted to Robert Farrar Capon. He is the one of my spiritual heroes who taught me more about grace than anyone. Robert was RUTHLESS about grace which got him in trouble regularly, especially with good church people.   I know because I saw it happen in front of my eyes.  It was a Sunday night in Madison, Mississippi, deep behind the Magnolia Curtain. At the Chapel of the Cross, the parish I served there, we had a Lecture in Easter-tide.  Whoever was invited was  simply asked to speak to us about grace.  I learned that Father Capon was leading a retreat at the nearby Diocesan Conference Center. I called him immediately and asked if he would care to do our lecture on either end of his other engagement. He graciously agreed and now back at the ranch it was Sunday night and he was lecturing in the parish hall to at least a couple of hundred people.

He launched into a vintage set-piece, a “tirade” about grace, and said that it was “grace plus nothing!” A man in the back of the room raised his hand (I’m standing in the back of the room watching this) and right then and there asked, “Why be good?”  This fellow came to Eucharist most every Sunday but was not a member.  He and his family were from a very fundamentalist sectarian form of Christianity and though he was very attracted to what was going on in our service, afterward he beat a retreat home to accompany his wife and children to their congregation.  He was by training a lawyer and by temperament a Pharisee.  He asked his question with an edge.  Robert totally unaware (or so he let on) of the implied hostility replied, “Because it’s more fun!”  Well that sat a match to the cotton bale.  “So, you’re saying it doesn’t matter how we live,” said the trial lawyer by day and Pharisee all day and night!  “I didn’t say that,” said Capon.  “Of course it matters how you live, it just doesn’t earn you anything; Its grace plus nothing!”  That was when it happened.

Chapel of the Cross – Madison, Mississippi

The room divided about 60/40, with 60% offended beyond measure and 40% thrilled out of their minds.  I thought this is how it was when Jesus taught. If I had been beside the lake it would have been just this way.   Well, the 60% were not seen the next night at the second lecture, but the fascinating thing was that the 40% were back dragging with them whoever had been injured or offended by the righteous and for whatever reason didn’t accept or buy the Gospel.  The net effect was that the attendance was about a third to a half larger than the night before.  And this crowd heard Robert gladly.  I’m here to tell you that that weekend I saw with my own eyes how deeply offended good people can be by the preaching of the Good News, the very ones who should have glad. The other folk, on the other hand, heard clearly what they would have hoped for if they had any notion of how good the genuine Good News really was!

The gravestone of Henry Grey Vick in the churc...

The gravestone of Henry Grey Vick in the churchyard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert, I know that God chuckled when he saw you coming yesterday afternoon and said, “Son, put on that apron and let’s go cook a batch of grace to use at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. I know I made the recipe up originally but I have always enjoyed the sauce you made to go with it. Nobody could whip up a batch of grace like you.

Robert, please save me a place at the bar so I can tell the one about the time you preached behind the Magnolia Curtain.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”  May light perpetual shine upon him.  JWS

What is Christian spirituality?

Dr. Helen Barnes

Dr. Helen Barnes

It is about breathing.  Dr. Helen Barnes, a woman of color, a pioneer in obstetrics in Mississippi,  when asked what she was going to do in response to a catastrophic event replied, “I’m going to breathe in and I’m going to breathe out.”

If the goal of the Christian journey is union/oneness with God and sin is that which separates humanity from God then one of the foundational issues for Christian spirituality is how to face reality – the totality of existence and what is real.  Human beings use denial, avoidance, rationalization and other mechanisms to format reality to fit what we long for or demand.

Edwin_FreidmanWhat is the will of God for humanity?  I think that God wants his creatures, particularly human beings to mature.  Maturity comes from facing challenge.  Whatever moves human away from reality and toward unreality is not Christian spirituality.  I think often of the following statement of the late Edwin Friedman on Idolatry.  He wrote,

“The problem with the worship of idols is not the actual worship but what that adoration denies.  Idolatry in any age and in any form is always the false promise of immediate security, the pretense of certainty at the expense of the more painful experience of the growth that can only come through facing challenge. Taken out of its primitive context, idolatry today has many forms, from substance abuse, to bending others to one’s own will, to the panicky search for the right answer.  Always, however, it denigrates the power of a human being to cope with reality, always it goes in the direction of reducing one’s threshold to endure pain, always it dilutes the resolve to develop the emotional stamina necessary for managing crisis, and therefore always it denies the spark of the divine.”

We are called to move into the future in faith, to learn wisdom from our experiences, developing stamina along the way that leads to the maturity of our souls.  That is the work of the Spirit and a gift of God.  It’s good news. Remember the words of Jesus, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”