Daily Office Readings – New Testament ( 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 )
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.1 Corinthians 15:8-10
Just recently, our church asked parishioners to take part in a spiritual life inventory, a survey really, and we were asked questions relating to our spirituality all the way to how often we attended church in a typical month. Almost all of the questions had a six answer range from “Very Strongly Disagree” to “Very Strongly Agree.” I am on the committee that will evaluate the responses and determine how we want to move the church forward in the future.
One particular question that was included in our survey results had to do with core beliefs, namely, “I believe that God loves me unconditionally.” Now, I won’t tell you how many of our parishioners said yes to this, but I will tell you that it was lower than the norm across all people of all denominations that took this survey. The norm for all denominations for which this group had data said that only 66% of people believed that God loved them unconditionally.
When I saw that, I mentioned that from a theological standpoint, I really found that disconcerting. The pastor agreed, and said that we have “lots of work to do.” Naturally, I agreed.
But I’ve been thinking on this concept of Grace and Unconditional Love for a bit now, and one of the things that I notice when I speak with people who explain that they do not feel God’s love is that they have often experienced some kind of hurt as a child. That hurt has left them with feelings of shame, or guilt, or simply with the feeling that love has to be earned. Through no fault of their own, they have been hampered in their experience of the divine.
A few years ago, while in another denomination from my current, I heard a story of a pastor who had prepared a sermon he was quite pleased with and was looking forward to preaching. But when he stepped up to the pulpit, he felt that God had told him to simply preach “God Loves You.” And so he did. He kept saying the same three words over and over with different emphasis and at different speeds, and after a while, several people int he congregation began to cry. It wasn’t because the pastor had been going on for about fifteen minutes by then and that they were bored to tears, but rather, those people told him afterward that they had well and truly felt God’s love for the very first time in their lives.
Out of all the people who were there that day, only four people in that congregation had started to cry and felt God’s love for the first time in their lives. Perhaps the others already knew and experienced God’s love, or, perhaps, they belonged to the group that has not felt unconditional love before, and they too heard the words, but didn’t feel God’s love that day. We can’t know for sure.
As I thought about this story, and about the conversations I have had with people, I realized that there isn’t so much that we can do to teach about unconditional love or grace. Sure, I can share all the passages of scripture that deal with God’s love, or share all the theological concepts of grace and love, but it won’t help. It is something that has to be felt, and no amount of “book knowledge” will help people to understand it. It is something that needs to be left up to the Holy Spirit.
And so while I agreed at first that we have “a lot of work to do,” I think now the only work that I can truly do is to continue loving my neighbor as best as I can, and to continue praying for those people that they will be blessed with experiencing God’s love in actuality.