I grew up in a Lutheran preacher's family in 1950s Ohio. My Dad preached a liberal, non-violent Jesus, my Mom—daughter and sister of Lutheran preachers—played the organ while old ladies sang sweet or stirring 19th century hymns, and I learned Bible stories in Sunday School.
The Lutherans of my childhood didn't teach hellfire and damnation. They taught confession and forgiveness and now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?
They also didn't teach biblical literalism and inerrancy, though, in my child's mind, there was an unspoken assumption that all the Bible stories they told me were true. Of course, pretty much anything adults told me was "true."
There was no Sunday School attempt to acknowledge or deal with the ambiguities and outright contradictions in the Bible. This was partly because adults don't expect children to be capable of noticing or contemplating ambiguity and contradiction.
Actually, children do attempt these things as best they can, but, unfortunately, they usually do so without the help of adults. Adults generally are not comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction, and they would rather "become as little children…."
By adolescence, I was of course noticing and struggling with every single ambiguity and contradiction in life, since that is the job assignment for adolescence.
Meanwhile, Jesus was revealing more radically in my personal life his demand for non-violent justice.
We moved to South Carolina in 1965, the year my high school was integrated. It took me a while to understand why white friends wouldn't let me and my black friends sit at their lunch table.
When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, a group of black and white students tried unsuccessfully to convince the principal to hold interracial dialogs, in order to avoid violence. Instead, he accused us of violating school policy when we called a similar meeting in the county library outside of school hours.
By the time I got to Lutheran Seminary after college in 1972, I was deeply concerned with issues of war, race, poverty and women's rights. It had become clear to me that doing one's best to practice non-violence and to make human rights real was the essence of now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace.
To me, Jesus' most powerful, prophetic word is now.
Everything else in scripture is guidance on how to do now, or else stories about people who, though believing themselves to be faithful, either distracted themselves from or attempted to put off the divine plea for now.
In this context, the passage which fills me with the most bittersweet joy and longing is this one from Jeremiah:
33 No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people.
34 There will be no further need for everyone to teach neighbor or brother, saying, "Learn to know Yahweh!" No, they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, Yahweh declares, since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.
—Jer. 31:33-34, New Jerusalem Bible
"When those days have come…."
I used to struggle with the conventional Judeo-Christian-Islamic use of the notion of linear history to interpret God's interaction with this world.
I could see linear history implicit in the sequence of events, which appear to flow in only one direction. I was taught to see it in our historical storytelling, whether that was storytelling about my own life and the lives of people I know, or about other lives, or about nations, cultures, civilizations, epochs, the earth or the cosmos.
I was also taught to see it in the Bible, in that library of stories, drawn from oral and written traditions across centuries, which tell how the People stumble, err and try again and again to hear, to understand and to respond to God's desire for "mercy, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).
Yet something always troubled me about the conventional readings of this history, the conventional ways of understanding God's promise.
All those thousands of years, all those billions of lives, waiting.
All those mundane or barely subsisting or horribly suffering lives of people who have to live through the not yet, who might never even hear the promise, "When those days have come…."
Something did not seem right. It was far too difficult—nearly impossible—to believe that the all-healing love of God could be present in each moment of each life, if God were saying "not yet" to billions of lives.
Then I realized that for God it is all now.
I imagined the sphere of all that humankind will ever experience.
Our paths through that sphere may (or may not) be linear history.
Yet, in relation to every point in that sphere, God is now.
Over the decades since that realization, I have come to imagine another possibility, another way of knowing the true love of God through the cloudy mirror of the scriptures.
"Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts."
Imagine that, instead of being commandments, the familiar ten sayings given to Moses are promises.
Better still, imagine that they are affirmations of what is already true, whenever we find ourselves, even momentarily, in the now of God.
"When you are aware that you are in my now...
"You have no need to mistake parts of me for the whole.
You have no need to make objects to hold my power.
You have no need to deceive others or yourself, hiding behind oaths in my name.
You readily allow all beings the equal justice of rest on the sabbath.
You honor your parents.
You do not kill, commit adultery, steal, give false evidence or covet.
"When you are aware that you are in my now, you have no desire to stray from these realities, and you cannot be swayed into do so."
—Exodus 20:1-17 (paraphrased)
Imagine that, instead of being promises, the beatitudes are affirmations of what already is.
"When you remember that you are in God's now...
"The poor receive what they need.
The grieving are consoled.
The gentle have the earth as theirs.
Justice is given to all.
The merciful receive mercy.
The undefiled of heart see God.
Those who work for peace are acknowledged as God's children.
Those who suffer for justice sake see it fulfilled."
—Matthew 5:3-10 (paraphrased)
Imagine that, instead of petitions in prayer, we make affirmations in the now...
"Our parent, your name is revered.
Your way is enacted in all parts of the now.
You give us what we need for the day.
You forgive us and help us to forgive.
You do not test but rescue us from temptation."
—Matthew 6:9-13 (paraphrased)
That would be an answer to now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?
And so it is.
Mike Shell is a member of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting and attender of Jacksonville (FL) Meeting. He lives with Jim, his spouse of twenty-four years, and manages remote customer services for Jacksonville Public Library. He publishes Walhydra's Porch and The Empty Path.