Real theology: can’t earn this

“Reel Theology” was the title of the presentation at CPE Day, a program of scattered film clips interspersed by whole-room conversation. With over 100 people in the room, this was not the best format to engage many of us, but several of the clips were thought-provoking. Two of them were from movies I had chosen not to see because cinematic violence stays with me forever. I try to keep it out.

The first consisted of bookended clips from Saving Private Ryan: the opening bloodbath (which I did not watch), and the quiet aftermath of the ending sequence. The storyline is familiar to most; I’ve never been able to stomach the loss of any mother’s son in war, and so the film’s premise is immediately troubling. Then, at the end of the film, the stakes notch even higher. The combat leader responsible for saving Private Ryan so his mother doesn’t lose a fourth son loses his own life, but not before rasping out a whisper to Private Ryan: “Earn this.”

As if he could. As if any of us could. This is terrible theology; the antithesis of grace. The whole point of paying attention to love and life is to recognize that our very first breath is pure gift: more than any of us could ever earn.

But we seem to want the more cruel economy; we construct heroism, politics, religions, cultures and values around it. This calculus is at the heart of the predominant theology of salvation in the Christian church; that our sin incurred such a debt that only the perfect sacrifice could earn humanity’s redemption.

I don’t buy it.

The God incarnate in Jesus came to show us love, a love that would lay down its life before engaging in violence. That love came up against religion and politics, and that system put Jesus to death. I don’t believe God needed or wanted that death. The resurrection is the rest of the story: a needed correction that says life is the point, not death.

Maybe if we stopped believing in a God capable of violence, we’d stop some of our own. We’d see it for what it is: always wrong.

The only possible response to being given a first or another chance at life is not to try to earn it but to give it away: to spend your life in loving others, God, and – don’t forget – yourself. But that’s not the way the young private lives: he spends his whole life doing just what he was told: trying to earn the worth of his life. How can he? How can we, when we are worth infinitely more than any effort of our own might attain?

What has caused so many of us – myself included – to spend so many years trying to find a way to feel good enough, in pursuit of feeling worthy of our own breath? We can’t. A real theology would teach us so.

What does it look like, then, to spend rather than earn your life?

Another clip offered a portrayal. This one came from The Fisher King, another movie I have not seen (although this one I believe I will). In this scene, Parry is on a first date with Lydia, a beyond-quirky young woman who never speaks in the scene but whose behavior moves from odd to completely bizarre: odd sounds, flying food, crazed laughter. Parry mirrors her every move. He will not abandon her to her reality, or leave her alone in it; he joins her where she is. I found myself thinking, there. There’s a perfect image of ministry: whether in chaplaincy, or in the church.

In chaplaincy, the goal is to come to where the person is, and to look with them at the situation: not to rescue them, or Lady Bountiful them, but to help them find what strengths they have to bring to bear in and on their own situation, resources found in their own family, community, or faith tradition. It starts the way Parry did: he came to Lydia, and joined her where she was.

Of course, chaplains can’t completely enter into the reality of the people we work with: we continue to be more (temporarily) able-bodied, and we retain the freedom (for now) to be able to get up and walk out of the room. But still … in the best engagement with the person in the room, there is a nearly true entering into the felt reality of that person.

Church does not have the same goals as chaplaincy; but church too could learn from Parry. What would it look like, instead of the church inviting people to join it, if the church tried to join people, where they were? Words like “open and affirming” and “welcoming” might go out the window, in a good way. Because who is the church to say it is open, when so often the experience is otherwise? Who gave it the right and responsibility to affirm, which is still a form of judgment? Why think in terms of “welcome” when that notion continues to reinforce who is in and who is not, who has the power to issue the welcome, who owns the resource to which people are welcomed?

Aren’t we both welcomed, both welcoming?

This has not been my experience. I can think of some reasons why. And I’m really not trying to launch bitterness bombs at the church. I’m just seeing a way I’d like to try to live into.

Here’s the thing. I had a hard day. It was hard to get into the room with the patients on my floor. Over the course of the day, I managed four visits. In two other situations, I went to a room, and the patient was somewhere else. In another case, I went to a room, and the name was not on the door, and I got flummoxed and bailed. And in two other cases, the patients I went to see had nurses in their rooms and I did not want to interrupt. This is called chickening out. Feeling like there’s a miasma between me and the room I’m trying to get into. Feeling as though I cannot pray hard enough to receive the courage I need. Feeling afraid. Feeling not good enough.

Earn this? I can’t.

And trying is getting in the way of something important, I think. A receiving that I have not allowed to the full extent.

I need to know myself both welcomed and welcoming. And I’m not sure how.

It’s a dance. It’s not where you expect; the steps are not ones that you know; and you have probably never heard the music before.

But if you look out your window, and you see me standing there, I hope you’ll know it for the invitation it is. Come outside. And join in the dance of grace I am learning … you show me your steps; I’ll show you mine.

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2 Responses to Real theology: can’t earn this

  1. jharader says:

    Another lovely post. I wish I knew how to get around the “open and affirming” baggage you point out while still communicating clearly about this aspect of our church’s identity. Suggestions? Also, my questioning of “God killed Jesus for our sins” theology got me into almost as much trouble at my ordination council as my “open and affirming” position. Thank you for your willingness to share your struggles so honestly here.

    • tam121 says:

      Thanks, Joanna. I think the O&A language is good for telegraphing about your church’s identity, and it’s also a good idea to follow up the telegram with a more complete exploration, both in your church’s representations and in the life of the community; e.g., understanding that O&A is a starting point, not the finish line. I’d be happy to talk more about this. And yeah, I was kind of variance in my soteriology, too, even back then. It’s ten years ago now that I was ordained in the Mennonite Church. I am glad I will be able to celebrate that ordination as an ordained person credentialed once more.



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