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The Grace of Just Showing Up

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the modern experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

38 Responses to “The Grace of Just Showing Up”

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  1. John says:

    “The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart.”

    Why can’t it be “and” instead of “or”? That is, a change of status and a change of heart.

    BTW, I’ve been reading Karamazov lately. He has some of his characters say some negative things about Orthodoxy.

  2. Greg says:

    John – Karamazov has no doubt made Christians into atheists and atheists into Christians. It is a (to my mind at least) the greatest apologia for Christianity written in the modern age, it also has the most powerful broadsides against the
    Faith found anywhere. That is it’s power: pay special attention to the homilies of Fr. Zosima and the ultimate destiny of Alyosha. That is where Dostoyevsky’s ultimate response is found.

  3. Christine says:

    As a mother of two (almost three) young kids, I think that “showing up” is about all I can handle most days. It is something I cling to fervently–that God honors that I am doing my best to raise my children in church, and even if I can only manage one heartfelt “Lord have mercy” per service (and most days, not even that), we are still there, worshiping as a family.

  4. Andrew Battenti says:

    John, and all, if I might:

    The only person who needs to show up is God. This is what prayer and liturgy are meant to be (actual recollections of the pre-eternal God).

  5. NW Juliana says:

    Oh, yes, Christine, from one mother with young children to another, thank you for saying that. I often feel guilty for what I don’t do (crafts/lessons in preparation for the feasts, daily reading of the lives of the saints, methodical Scripture memorization, etc.), but we DO “show up” as much as we can, and we do press on. Lord have mercy.

    (I’m writing also as someone who’s thankful that we’ll be getting our own priest soon so that we won’t have to miss feast day celebrations — like yesterday!! We’ll have our own local services at which we can “show up.” The Church will do such a better job of training our kids than I ever can …. by myself ….)

  6. Andrew Battenti says:

    You are very right NW Juliana. Though in truth, we are never alone (surrounded as we are by that great cloud of witnesses).

  7. Ioannis Freeman says:

    Healing –”salvation”– involves repetition and more repetition. I recall one of your many reflections, Father Stephen, via Podcast sometime ago, concerning the repetitious content of the Divine Liturgy and, indeed, most services of the Church.

    These repetitions bathe us in Light. Indeed, perhaps even because of these repetitions our souls awake in good times and bad to recalling who we have become in Christ by spontaneous remembrance of rehearsed passages from Orthodox services. I like to call such spontaneous recollections a part of the grace received by just showing up.

    Often enough the poetry of troparia, stycheria, and other propers from the Typikon shift my consciousness and draw me into the silence and wonder of being observed by the Holy Trinity and all the angels and saints who are part of the same occasion of service.

    We could call this experience one of the “real presence,” except that this phrase “real presence” has already been coined for a similar but different phenomenon and experience of Christ as present and manifest in His Body and Blood in the holy chalice.

    We might also call it an experience of the one-storey universe to borrow a phrase from Father Stephen. Whatever we call it, we can rely on these holy poems of the Church to draw us into what is more real than anything prior known. I consider this genuine stability.

  8. Brantley Thomas says:

    John,

    I think your question of “Why can’t [salvation] be ‘and’ instead of ‘or’? That is, a change of status and a change of heart.” is a good one, and I think the answer is a subtle one, yet can be summarized pretty succinctly: God does not change.

    A change in legal status means that the way God views us has changed. God’s view of us never changes. It’s always, 100% of the time, pure love. We cannot ever do anything to keep that from being the case.

    On the other hand, we can (and do) do many things to estrange ourselves from God, but it is us who has changed. Not God. Salvation is the process of reuniting ourselves to Him.

    In Christ,
    BT

  9. Karen says:

    Wow, Brantley! You’ve said very well and concisely what I have written to John in more words. But I’ll still offer the following to John as an elaboration on what you have said.

    John, if I may, I think what has been important for me to hear and understand as a former Evangelical Protestant is that spiritually and in a proper biblical understanding, there is no change of status without a real change of heart on our part. A presumed change of status (i.e., personal salvation) without a real change taking place within the heart, far from being “spiritual reality” is unreal–it is a lie and has no spiritual substance whatsoever. Rather, this notion of many Protestants we Orthodox believe results from an erroneous interpretation of Scripture (specifically, of St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 3 & 4) where a presumed “positional truth” (offered as “spiritual reality”) is opposed to the manifest reality on the ground in our still-sinful lives. This is not to say that Orthodox do not also affirm we as believers are justified as regards to the OT Law when we place faith in Christ for our salvation (Who fulfills the Law), but the change in status is something we proclaim and celebrate precisely insofar as it reflects and points to the real change of heart (ontological transformation from death to life) that has taken, and is taking, place within us through faith.

    Related to what I believe was a false or incomplete understanding of biblical justification that I had as a Protestant, equally important for me to hear and understand was that Jesus is the *revelation* of God’s heart of mercy and forgiveness towards us, not the *means of changing God’s disposition* toward us to one of mercy and forgiveness from wrath. In other words, it was never God’s attitude toward us that needed to be changed through the incarnation of Jesus (included in the meaning of “incarnation” here are His death and resurrection, etc., as well) in order to end our estrangement from Him; it was, and is always, ours toward Him.

    I found this reflection on some differences between Eastern Orthodox Christian piety and teaching and that of some of its counterparts in the West to be helpful in clarifying this latter distinction especially:

    http://www.frederica.com/writings/the-meaning-of-christs-suffering.html

    This is all to say that I believe the correct answer to your question is that it IS “both/and,” with the foregoing clarification. Fr. Stephen’s statement is not an opposition to the real meaning of Scriptural “justification by faith,” but rather to the theories of what this means believed and taught by many modern Christians influenced by Reformation and post-Reformation definitions and philosophical frameworks for interpreting Scripture, usually revolving around the “Penal Substitution” theory of the Atonement.

  10. John,
    My questions viz. a change in status, have to do with what it says about God – things that I think are mistaken (as in changing how God sees us-if you find such language in the Scripture I think it must be understood metaphorically – either God’s love is unchanging or its not). I could conceive of ways of speaking about a change in status that did not involve a change in God (but the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is not one of them).

    On Dostoevsky – Some of Dostoevsky’s characters will indeed say terrible things about Orthodoxy, and about God – his characters are quite varied. Dostoevsky, over the course of his writings, is addressing the debates of his century. He is an Orthodox Christian (though peculiar on a few points). The Brothers Karamazov certainly is the most complete treatment of the debates, but the “answer” is to be found in the character of the Elder Zossima (not so much in his arguments, but in his very person).

    If you have a chance to choose translations – always see if you can find translations by Pevear and Volokhonskoy (spelling?). They are new but head and shoulders above any others.

  11. Andrew,
    I disagree – God is not the only person who needs to show up. Our salvation surely involves our presence as well (though it is extremely difficult to be present once one has shown up).

  12. Brantley Thomas says:

    Karen,

    I cannot take credit for it. I really DID think it was a good question. Good enough to ask my priest when I had lunch with him. :-)

    In Christ,
    BT

  13. Michael Bauman says:

    Andrew, God did show up on the Cross and He draws all men to Him. We are either drawn or we resist the drawing. “Showing up” is a response to the draw.

    Life in God is not all about God’s word and person, it is about our response to His word and person. Either we accept both and open the door or our heart to Him or we do not and drift toward outer darkness.

    For my own personal salvation I must “show up” in prayer, worship, almsgiving, repentance and forgiveness. The more I show up, the more I can experience God’s grace.

    People tend to rebel against the freedom God gives us and promises us. We tend to be more comfortable with law, tryanny and even oppression. That way we don’t have to bother to show up or even choose not to show up.

  14. Andrew Battenti says:

    Father, if I may,

    I’m sticking with what I said about God being the “only shower” — in the sense that the “three Who bear witness” are “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” and “these three are one”. 1 John 5:8

    Yes we are there too but completely caught up in adoration and glory (all His).

  15. Andrew,
    I understand the piety of what you are saying, but it is contrary to the Orthodox teaching of the faith. Adoration and glory does not make us disappear, but rather fulfills us. Indeed we become “partakers of the divine nature” (as St. Peter says) or in later dogma of the Church, “partakers of uncreated grace.” There is no one to be “caught up” if we don’t “show up.”

  16. Andrew Battenti says:

    I absolutely agree Father, we most certainly do not disappear. That would imply a Manichean worldview :)

    Quite the contrary, “in Him do we live and move and have our being!” Acts 17:28.

  17. John says:

    You were close. It ends in -sky. I am looking at his name and had to look twice to check the spelling. That is the translation I read last year in paperback. I am now reading on Kindle on my notebook and Blackberry. It is translated by Constance Garnett. Though its been about a year, Garnett seems to be an easier read. I am following the story better the second time around. Have you read Faulkner? He is my favorite and I understand he was a fan of Dostoevsky.

    We may be reading K with different glasses, but to me he leaves some criticisms of Orthodoxy standing. There was a negative statement early on about the monasteries. Is he discrediting Zosima in ‘An Odor of Corruption’? Don’t most of your Bishops come from monasteries? Yet the hero, Alyosha, winds up leaving the monastery and is told to do so by Zosima himself.

    John

  18. Karen says:

    John and Fr. Stephen,

    I think you probably have to read the complete novel to understand where Dostoyevsky will land vis-a-vis the criticisms of Christianity/Christians in the book. Some of it is obviously unfounded slander such as the suspicion and criticism of the saintly monk Zosima, for example. My high school senior English teacher, who was rabidly anti-Christian, had us read up to the point of the “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov (the only novel he had us read that was written by a Christian and was favorable to a Christian world view), so that he could leave us with the impression that Dostoyevsky was anti-Christian. He was also intending to have us read The Last Temptation of Christ, but we lucked out and ran out of time! I do believe that was also the class I had to read some Faulkner for as well.

  19. “An Odor of Corruption” is a very interesting chapter. He is not critical of the Elder Zossima, but makes the proper point, that sainthood is not to be looked for so much in outward signs and miracles, as in love of God and neighbor and the forgiveness of everyone for everything.

    He is in no way naive about the life of the Church or its members, nor does he paint a make-believe image.

    D struggled for many years to portray a “good man.” The character Prince Myushkin in The Idiot was an early effort. Alyosha is another. He planned to write another book and develop Alyosha further (which required his leaving the monastery). But unfortunately D died before writing that novel.

  20. mike says:

    …”it was never God’s attitude toward us that needed to be changed through the incarnation of Jesus (included in the meaning of “incarnation” here are His death and resurrection, etc., as well) in order to end our estrangement from Him; it was, and is always, ours toward Him.”

    This is such a profound statement for me coming from a protestant background and something i must contemplate further,Thank you Karen!

  21. Karen says:

    You’re welcome, Mike, but I can’t take credit for that. I was just summarizing what I have learned through the Orthodox perspective. If you get a chance to read Frederica M-G’s reflection in the link I provided, she does a great job giving historical background to this theological divergence between East and West and driving this point home through a very helpful analogy.

  22. Greg says:

    Karen. If you get a chance to see the Russian film adaptation Bratya Karamozovi, you’ll also see a bit of “missing the point” in the under utilization of Fr. Zosima – whereas they do a great job with the Grand Inquisitor. It’s like only half the argument is portrayed.

    Having said that, if you have read the book, put the film on your must-see list. Living in America its easy to forget that quality films can be made.

  23. Andrew Battenti says:

    A block quote from History and the historyless by Leigh Eric Schmidt (The Immanent Frame) goes a long way towards expressing what is sometimes hard to put in words:

    “It is not at all strange that an absent past would prove disorienting, but it is peculiar in the midst of Varieties (a reference to Varieties of Religious Experience by William James) in which history seems always to be getting lost in the search for the eternal: “The everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition,” James insists, remains unaltered “by differences of clime or creed.” The mystical classics have “neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, . . . they do not grow old.” Mysticism has no past, no genealogy, and yet it walks and knows why.”

  24. Your posts are almost always encouraging, Father, but I just have to say, here, that sometimes–if your child’s only extracurricular activity is playing competitive soccer (and they happen to also be president of their youth group at church) and sometimes that means a game or tournament on Sunday, there is also “grace in showing up” with them for their game. It doesn’t send them a message that soccer matters more than God, but that we, the parents, value what matters to them because we love them.

  25. isaac8 says:

    If Dostoevsky only wrote positive things about Orthodoxy he would be a propagandist and not an artist. How bizarre that it would even be pointed out on this thread.

  26. Randi McAllister says:

    Thank you

  27. Darlene says:

    Karen,
    I would love to have your permission to use what you’ve said to a Reformed friend of mine who is dead set on IR (imputed righteousness). It is so challenging to convince someone of the dangers and misconceptions that are attached to this erroneous belief.

  28. Yes. Please feel free.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

  29. Karen says:

    Greg, thanks for the film recommendation.

    Darlene, yes, of course, go ahead. Obviously, I think Frederica’s article would be helpful to your friend as well.

  30. Brantley Thomas says:

    John, et al,

    Normally I wouldn’t bother following up on a “dead thread”, but by sheer coincidence today I ran across a rather good scholarly article about Orthodoxy and Dostoyevsky which focused on _The Brothers Karamazov_.

    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~karamazo/sheehan.html

    This will perhaps explain some of the enthusiasm that many Orthodox have for this book, which upon first read may seem someone perplexing.

    There’s also a quite poignant and moving footnote at the end of the essay that’s worth the time to read.

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