My friend, colleague, and neighbor, Fr. Ernie, is, like me, a retired rector of St. Paul’s in Walla Walla where he served for twenty some years. At eighty-six he just keeps going along as a gifted pastor and supply clergy for other nearby churches. He preached recently at Grace Church in Dayton, and I got to worship in the congregation as just another person in the pews. It’s a rare treat. On more Sundays than not, I’m the celebrant and preacher. It’s not only that I get really tired of hearing my own preaching, Ernie’s sermons always feed me in unexpected ways. It was true again yesterday.
Among other things, he said that being “saved” must mean to be welcomed and accepted if it is to have any meaning at all. God in Christ Jesus may welcome and accept with abounding and steadfast love, but we often stand in the breach preventing others from receiving it. That may be one reason why John the Baptist was so scornful of the Pharisees and Sadducees, breach standers of note, who came to see what he was up to at the Jordan. Well, there was more, but I want to get to something that was said in response to the sermon.
Someone wondered it we need to be more willing to “know the hearts” of others in order to make welcome and acceptance possible. Ernie wondered if it might be more important to know our own hearts than to try to know the hearts of others. Those are challenging questions worthy of consideration.
I’m reluctant to go down the path of knowing the hearts of others, especially newcomers to church, because I’ve seen too many cases where that has become a form of interrogation probing into corners that the other is not ready to reveal, or ever will be. That’s not welcome acceptance, it’s just plain nosiness. I’m more inclined to suggest an attitude of “I don’t know who you are or what is on your heart, but you are welcome and accepted here.” What we must do is to signal openness to be active listeners when an other needs to share what’s on his or her heart, but even there, boundaries need to be set. We need to actively listen to what is being said, but not pry deeper than invited. We also need to restrain ourselves from trying to fix the other. Let us neither prescribe solutions nor take on responsibility for their lives, as we are so apt to do. It’s easier said than done since prescribing and fixing is what we are most inclined to do.
Knowing our own hearts isn’t much easier. The fearless self examination required in AA is easily avoided by most of us because it’s hard work, requires confession and repentance, and demands a level of honesty with ourselves that is uncomfortable at best. If cruising along on our own patented persona autopilot seems to work well most days, why mess with it? Of course, problems arise for the body of Christ when that autopilot is well grounded in ignorance and programmed with prejudice. I doubt that any of us is completely free from those bugs, but they are so easily hidden that we can deny their presence without guile.
So where does that leave us. I think that if knowing the hearts of others or of ourselves is the price of welcome and acceptance, then we have little chance of either. However, we can point in that direction, and do the best we can, trusting that, by God’s grace, it will be good enough. It’s taken years, but I’ve come to recognize that God’s grace is not only essential, it is also what fills in the gaps between our incompetence and good enough. Learning to trust in that grace may be where we need to turn our attention.