Quality of redemption

Physical grace shapes spiritual reality in incarnational faith
September 30, 2003

Not long ago, I came across a page from an old journal. One page, no more; perhaps (for I am a rather desultory journal-keeper) there had never been more.

I had written: "Evening. Dusk. The lights coming on. I take out the trash, then sit for a time on the step. There are fireflies in the grass. A spotted cat stalks under the trees. I call, 'Come kit ... kit ... kit ...' knowing she will not come. She is intent, as only a cat can be intent, on whatever business has brought her here, under the trees with the grass and fireflies.

"I sometimes think of death, and always with grief at leaving a world so beautiful. This planet is not a safe place for human or beast, but it is filled with a supple, unapologetic beauty and a grace beyond words. A physical grace; a heaven that is only of the spirit is a heaven somehow incomplete."

The page was dated Sept. 10, 2001, and the next morning death went beyond such gentle musings and became for all of us the ultimate reality, arriving with an ugliness beyond imagining. And as the days went on and the stories became known, the ugliness was redeemed -- not erased nor wiped out; no clocks were turned back -- redeemed, by sacrifice and courage, which are also physical graces.

What I thought vaguely then, I think more clearly now: The paradox of the spiritual life is that it is not spiritual. It is woven of the color of clouds and the movement of wind in the trees, in all the flesh and blood of earth and, yes, in the achievements of humankind. "There is no great work," wrote Raymond Chandler, "that has not in it the quality of redemption."

I also remember another story, a true story told to me by a friend who traveled extensively for her employer and who found herself in Pakistan on an Easter Sunday some years ago. When she asked if there might be an Anglican church nearby, a helpful hotel clerk came up with directions and the times of two Sunday services.

Making her way through a crowded market square, my friend arrived at the church to find the service already begun -- and that it was being presented entirely in Urdu. Feeling confused and conspicuous, she hurried to the first available pew and knelt in prayer. When she raised her head, she realized she had placed herself on the men's side of a gender-divided church.

Today she still tells of her embarrassment and then of her joy as she saw smiles and nods of welcome; she was not a stranger but a guest among gracious hosts. Even the Eucharist celebrated in a strange tongue became familiar and comforting.

The quality of redemption

In this season of Francistide 2003, we will see the Anglican primates called to a special meeting by the archbishop of Canterbury. There will be other meetings as well -- perhaps no less important to the life of the church -- in parishes and dioceses across the country. I had thought at first to write about these meetings and the great care that will be needed to make sure language remains a bridge and not a barrier.

How can we talk about unity (I jotted on my pad) when for some that word means the unity of a select group and for others the unity of every soul on this living planet? How can we talk about spiritual life when for one person the term means exploration and for another it means discipline? How can we talk about church when for some the word church means mutual commitment to seeking the Christ life and for others it means revealed truth flowing down through an authorized hierarchy?

Even before I had finished writing, I knew I had taken a wrong turn.

Language is important -- you'll never find a writer who will say it's not -- but it's even more important that we find in ourselves the servanthood of redemption, for that is the only quality that can bring good out of anger and pain, the only quality that can gather the outcast home.

The quality of redemption will come in many shapes, all of them shaped by physical grace, for we are the faith of incarnation. It will come in the smile on a listening face, the clasp of a human hand, the nod of welcome and the word of hope. It will come in the breaking of bread in which the Christ, and thus ourselves, are made known to us.

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