“My place in Redeemer & vice versa, ”compare and contrast “ with life in general and personal history, with particular emphasis on the themes of plans and expectation (see subtext “Judas”)…”
OK, yesterday eve (well, late afternoon!) when I finally got to bed after staying up like I was half my age, I couldn’t write what I wanted. But I was too full to properly resist, so I at least assigned a theme for myself, noted above. Upon reading my “assignment,” today, I am dismayed, and thankful on behalf of my non-existent class, that I do not teach High School English, nor do I assign term papers.
I have been dodging this topic all morning, and my available time is near an end. Some would say I have been dodging this topic for 20 years, maybe 25. Time to get to it…
The “Redeemer” mentioned above is, of course, “The Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal (Houston, Texas)” which I introduced briefly in my previous post. For those who would like a more fulsome introduction, I will leave that to “google,” unless you ask, and I will be happy to respond as I am able. It was truly a remarkable place, and an amazing experience. Indeed, that may be part of my difficulty. Please note that in anything that follows, I am expounding on my own thoughts, with no representation (unless so stated) as to how these thoughts may generalize to anyone else, or indeed, whether anyone else with knowledge would agree with me, or think I’ve gone a bit off the rails.
This has been a season of great endings for me. It has seen the ending of my marriage of 30 years, it has also seen the ending of my trying to deal with the failure of that marriage, which has consumed 15 of those 30 years.
The ending of the Church of the Redeemer (hereafter, just “Redeemer”, or “the Redeemer”) as expressed in its life at 4411 Dallas St. in Houston has some strong emotional parallels. My connection there is almost coterminous with my relationship with my wife. Although we had a prior involvement, we were not together when I came to Redeemer in late August, 1977. She came separately, and with no knowledge of my involvement, in November ‘77. One of the aspects of her first Sunday was the presence of Bishop Richardson, confirming a number of persons into the Episcopal church, one of whom was me. This instituted a renewal of the relationship, culminating in marriage in August ’79.
I had 10 incredibly wonderful years at Redeemer during which my faith deepened, my awareness of God’s presence, both now and in the ages past blossomed. The reality of the Spirit of God in my soul was as real as the burgeoning awareness of my new bride’s love and active presence. There was much I didn’t understand (which is how it should be), but exploration of the difficult places inside each of us was encouraged.
In 1987, I lost my job due to the changing economy in Houston. Going back to school as a Funeral Director required every weekend for a year, and almost total withdrawal from other church functions, so that I could work at night while in school. We as a body, proclaimed the reality of the “body of Christ” in the world, and a life invested in one another as evidence of that reality. I had experienced (and hopefully, was able to manifest) that reality many times and in many ways during those early years, but when I was not present, I made about the same size hole as withdrawing one’s finger from a pail of water. On my return, (to every other week for the next decade) one elder, with whom I had worked with some closeness, joked that “he didn’t realize that I had been gone.” At least I hope it was just a joke that hit me in a sore spot. I still don’t know. The next 10 years were spent trying to come to terms with that issue, in light of what we understood as our mission to the broader church. Finally, after a week-long silent retreat, I came to some conclusions about all this. I got up the nerve to tell my “support group” exactly what was going on with me, and why, and to seek their prayer, support and council. The sole response to my rather impassioned stealing of the floor was a prayer that included a petition that God would “supply the lacks Eric may be experiencing, whatever they may be” I was crushed. Lack of understanding was acceptable –failure to say, “uh, Eric, I don’t understand what you mean? What IS going on?” was fatal. That year 1997, marked my retreat from Redeemer, and a wounded rejection of all I had experienced there, and a retreat from experiential Christianity to a much more intellectual expression.
One thing that I learned, and continue to learn, is that for all of us present in those days at Redeemer, my era and especially earlier, is that one may leave Redeemer, but the influence and the experience never leaves you. For good or bad, the relationship both with God, and with this body of people, is far too intense. The connection is far too real. If I may be so bold as to invite the comparison, it is far too much becoming ‘one flesh’ becoming one Body for the simple disillusion of a corporate relationship to complete. As the years progressed, I understood that there are certain points in any gathering that are beyond examination. They are axiomatic. Not to see them as obvious is almost by definition to claim that one is not a true member of that group. For a long-time Baptist deacon and Sunday-School teacher to announce that he had grave difficulties accepting “the whole substitutionary atonement deal” would be unacceptable. I’m sure a similar problem would exist inside an atheist group. For Redeemer-ites, to admit to difficulties surrounding the perception of this group as the “body of Christ” was a stretch. It was our entire reason for existing.
My flaw was that I assumed, no, really I demanded that the Church be good at something I could not do myself.
The barriers between people that I felt so strongly, were not things that the people I was associated with were very good at overcoming. Neither was I. If the response had been “I don’t understand it either, let’s try and figure it out together,” That answer in itself would have breached the wall. But that runs into the native assumptions I had mentioned. So I began to forgive people, I had no right to insist that they be better than I. Now, that left me where I was, though although without the bitterness. Redeemer had become irrelevant. The parish went through its own troubles, which have been documented elsewhere. During this period, my wife and I had several separations, including two divorce filings, and one divorce decree.
I lamented in extended prayer about my life, and “God, what should I do?” Of course, this is telescoping many, many weeks. I am decidedly not prone to anything I would call audibly hearing the voice of God in response to prayer, but this time I did:
“Read the Bible” the voice said.
“That’s stupid, it is way more complicated than such simplistic answers. It can’t be that simple now, can it?
Then “Well, maybe it can’t be that simple. …’ “Eric, if you are unwilling to do simple things, how are you ever going to do hard ones”
OK, you’ve got me there.… You know, this is exactly the kind of thing I would make up out of my own mind. I don’t know that any of this is ‘from God’ at all!”
… “Well Eric, that is certainly a compelling point –it does sound like it could be out of your own head…’ ‘Is it wrong? …’Whether the source is immediate divine revelation, or if the source is wisdom and experience stored up against this day, is the ‘advice’ good, or ill?”
I followed it, read the Bible straight through twice, immersed myself in every bible study I could get involved with, and there were some good ones!
I discovered what I think is the grand theme, that of a love relationship, repeated betrayal and failed restoration attempts until the faithful party gives Himself in a grand act of restoration. After further trials and exploration as to “what it all means” the story culminates with the marriage and fulfillment at the end of “the Revelation.” Love, betrayal and unfaithfulness, restoration based, not on the penance of the guilty beloved, but on the selflessness and sacrifice of the faithful lover. That is the theme.
I was discovering this just before the death of one of the most beloved angelic figures at Redeemer in 2007. Those adjectives are not hyperbole. They only incompletely describe Elise’s life and ministry. I began to see a new vision, I also (somewhat uncomfortably) re-encountered my now ex-wife at the Funeral service. If these ideas I had been working with were real, and not pretty intellectual toys, it was time to make a telephone call.
God had His own workings with S, and in the following September we were remarried. I deeply felt this remarriage as a small, local and personalized example of what He desired to do, and was in fact doing with this entire fallen humanity. All the readings proclaimed it. My own explanation for those readings was read, almost as a second homily, in testimony of those truths.
THIS was and is the “Grand Thing” which God is doing…Look at it and see the truth in action –Rejoice!
And I blew it.
I have documented in the pages of this blog how I blew it, but I did. S had her influence, but I blew it.
I had the great dream, this great testimony of God’s victory over brokenness, and I blew it. I failed.
My love for Redeemer, and for the vision of “One Body” out of our brokenness was intense. I have always hungered for the “grand story” for signs and wonders, not in the production of physical miracles but in the wonders of real healing, of good things that will grab the world by the ear and say “SEE THIS!”
I saw Redeemer as such, and felt it had failed. At first, I thought it had failed me. Then I thought I, as part of ‘we’ had failed God.
The same as in my second marriage to S, I (or we) had a chance to proclaim to the world this new thing what God was doing- was willing to do- will do in you if you let Him- here is the proof and example. And I (or we) blew it.
Failed at the only thing that is worth doing in this world, proclaiming the Glory and goodness of God.
Well, that gets this story up to last week. As I have noted, I have had a book come to mind repeatedly over the last 2 months, “The Gospel According to Judas” by Ray S. Anderson (NavPress 1991) I decided that, if it were surfacing that often, I should re-read it (it’s been well over ten years), if only to get the quotations right. In it, Anderson explores the themes of love and betrayal, of choosing, of the power of God. As a vehicle for this exploration, he uses the betrayal of Judas, set against the victory of Jesus on the cross, and imagines a meeting between the two in the “shadow times” between the crucifixion and the resurrection, after the suicide of Judas.
Judas had (so at least one stream of tradition has it) a vision of messiah-ship.
Bonheoffer tells us (quoting from old memory, I can’t find my copy just now) that
“Most people coming to Christian Community have at least some idea of what such community will look like. Those who are very experienced Christians may have a very strong idea.
If God is gracious, He sill break those very quickly.”
Judas had a strong idea of what God was doing; he committed himself to Jesus as that Messiah. Jesus betrayed that vision. Judas was committed to his vision –he rejected Jesus, and in turn betrayed Him.
I had a vision, developed into a ‘very strong one’ of Christian community. Redeemer “failed” that vision.
I had a vision of Christian Marriage, particularly THIS Christian marriage. I failed and betrayed that vision.
One of the telling quotes from Anderson (and I’m still reading and processing), is this:
“What counts, Judas, is not our foolish choices, but my Father’s gracious calling. My choosing of you counts more than your betrayal of me”
He presents prayer, not as a theological vending machine (insert one righteous act, extract one blessing of your choice) or even as a way to enter into the secret places of God’s wisdom, so that we may make “good” choices and avoid bad ones –like selecting Judas as one of the twelve. Instead, he envisions prayer as communion with the Father, such that even the bad choices, such as the choice of Judas, and the choices by Judas are drawn up into the will of God, baptized and made holy, made of holy effect.
Sin is still sin, betrayal is still betrayal. But the work of Jesus the victory of Jesus, is stronger than the work of sin. The fruit of sin is death, we are told many times, but death is exactly what our Lord overcame.
Our sin, our sinful choices, our betrayal is not undone. That would not be a miracle but a time machine act (and they would return!). But they are drawn into the act of redemption.
My failure of Redeemer, and Redeemers failure of me, are together part of the story of Redemption. It gets no press, and I can’t stand up and say “look at this” in ways that inspire devotion. But the truth is God’s.
I sinned against my wife, and she, me. That is truth. Over the last 15 and more years, we broke this beyond our ability to put the pieces back. But I will not ask the Lord for an encore –He does draw our sin into himself, and in so doing redeems it, and us into something that our hearts have not seen nor can yet imagine. It is the same for all the people of “The Redeemer”
As was said in the final sermon at The Redeemer yesterday by Mr. Mark Ball,
there are two, and only two classes of events:
Those brought about by God, for His Glory
Those brought about by sinful and broken people, redeemed by God for His Glory
May the blessings and Glory of God rest upon all those who are part of the Family of the Church of the Redeemer, of whatever era, that all may be one in the arms and heart of the One God.
-R. Eric Sawyer