Archive for the ‘Graham Greene’ Tag

The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God   1 comment

Above:  Christ Healing an Infirm Woman, by James Tissot

Image in the Public Domain

The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God

SEPTEMBER 26, 2021


Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:

Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,

that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of life,

which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ,  who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), page 236


1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 or Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 107:1-3, 170-32

Romans 9:1-6, 16

Luke 13:10-17


The twin themes of divine judgment and mercy dominate these five readings, O reader.

I know, O reader, that, if you have paid attention to and read this weblog for a while, you can probably guess what I will write next.  The Bible is repetitive.  Lectionaries keep taking me into repetitive territory.  The Bible repeats itself because people missed a given message the first many times.

You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

–Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938)

The mercy of God present in Jesus, healing on the Sabbath, appalled one synagogue official in Luke 13:10-17.  This mercy should have filled that man with joy on behalf of the formerly afflicted woman.  No, he stood of conventional piety, according to which Christ’s actions were inappropriate–even sinful–on the Sabbath.  Jesus did not provide first aid; that would have been fine, according to conventional piety.  Neither did he provide emergency relief that saved her life; that also would have been fine, according to conventional piety.  Had he healed her on any of the other six days of the week, that would have been fine, according to conventional piety.  So much for that version of conventional piety!

The easy way out is to stand on one’s perceived moral superiority to that synagogue official.  The easy way out is to denounce him and stop there.  However, I know myself well enough to affirm that I have my own version of conventional piety–the rules of the spiritual road, as I understand them, so to speak.  If Jesus were to stand in front of me and transgress any of those rules, I would probably take offense at him.  That would be my problem and sin, not his.

You, O reader, probably resemble that remark.  Who among us is a spiritual superhero, greater than mere mortals?

May God forgive all of us our spiritual blindness and fixations that prevent us from responding as we should.  And may we follow divine leading in repenting of those sins.





Adapted from this post:


The Only Saving Work   2 comments

Above:  Icon of the Crucifixion, by Andrei Rublev

Image in the Public Domain


For the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, Year 1


Lectionary from A Book of Worship for Free Churches (The General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches in the United States, 1948)

Collect from The Book of Worship (Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1947)


Almighty and Everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,

and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve;

pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy,

forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid,

and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask,

but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

The Book of Worship (1947), 204


Daniel 9:8-19

Psalm 62:1-8

Romans 10:4-18

Luke 9:28-45


Faith comes by hearing, St. Paul the Apostle tells us down the corridors of time.  However, as we read in Daniel 9, Romans 19, and Luke 9, hearing does not always lead to faith.  Not everyone who hears the words of God responds to them as the author of Psalm 62 did.

As I write occasionally in posts, when the topic arises, God sends nobody to Hell.  Hell is real.  I understand Heaven and Hell to be realities, not places with coordinates and boundaries.  Neither Heaven nor Hell is north of x or southeast of y.  God seeks to draw all people in.  As Karl Barth asked, if God were to save everybody, would that be bad?  Universal salvation would be nice, but many people reject salvation.  God sends nobody to Hell.  All people in Hell condemned themselves.

I also affirm that, assuming one goes to Heaven, one may experience some surprise at who is present and who is absent.  Theological humility is a virtue, and should not rejoice to conclude that anyone is in Hell.  I also admit to discomfort at the assertion that admission into Heaven depends on passing St. Peter’s canonical examination.  To transform doctrine into a Heavenly litmus test is to understand the acceptance of received orthodoxy as a saving work.  In my theology, Jesus is the only person who ever committed a saving work.  He did it for all of us.

The appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,

as Graham Greene called it in Brighton Rock, is wonderful.  I choose to embrace it, for such love deserves and affirmative response.  That extravagant, divine love must come with the option of human rejection if human acceptance is to mean anything.  And rejection of it leads to self-condemnation.  In these cases, both salvation and damnation entail receiving what one wants.









Regarding Asceticism and Fun-Damn-Mentalism   2 comments


According to the Reverend Henry Harbaugh, these man were sinning.

Image Creator and Publisher = Bain News Service

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ggbain-33887


Therefore, my friends, I implore you by God’s mercy to offer your selves to [God]:  a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart.  Conform no longer to the pattern of this present world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.  Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.

–Romans 12:2, The Revised English Bible (1989)


Life is good.  My life is an enjoyable one, a time filled with graces small, medium, and large.  Today, for example, I ate lunch with my beloved.  It was a fine meal in terms of both cuisine and company.

During that meal my mind wandered into theological matters.  My recent background reading for a series, Liturgy in the Moravian Church in America, soon to debut at this weblog, has brought many details to my attention.  Among them is the porous boundary between the sacred and the secular in Moravian tradition.  Often one’s approach makes all the difference on that spectrum.  Yes, some matters in the secular realm can never be sacred, but many can.  Laurence Libin, writing in the Foreword to The Music of the Moravian Church in America, provided an excellent illustration of that principle on page xv.  Once a strict minister chastised some single members of the congregation for playing sacred music on instruments on Sunday and serenades on the same instruments during the week.  An elder replied that the pastor preached with the same mouth he used to eat sausages.

Asceticism is a religious tradition with Christian expressions.  In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, from the time of early Christianity to today, one can find examples of people seeking to make themselves uncomfortable, if not miserable, for Christ’s sake.  A partial catalog includes wearing a hairshirt, flagellating oneself, living atop a pillar, and having oneself nailed to a cross on Good Friday.  A few years ago I read about an Eastern Orthodox monk (later canonized) who lived in a cramped cell at the top of a winding and incredibly narrow staircase.  Such practices are foreign to my spirituality, for I do not seek opportunities to make myself uncomfortable, if not miserable, for anybody’s sake.  Asceticism has functioned as a self-imposed substitute for enduring persecution and facing martyrdom.  That makes three more things I hope to avoid, not that I endeavor to live rather than renounce Christ.

Related to asceticism is fun-damn-mentalism.  The Reverend Charles Finney (1792-1875) was a killjoy.  He condemned anything he considered self-indulgent, such as the consumption of meat, tea, coffee, and pastries or the practice of women wearing ribbons in their hair of fashionable clothing on their bodies.  On the other hand, he instructed people to maintain good posture, clean their nails, and do their laundry for the glory of God.  (“Sit up straight, sit up straight for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross….”  Sing along with me!)  Finney was suspicious of other appetites, such as that for fine literature.  He did not understand how a Christian could give time, attention, and shelf space to works of “a host of triflers and blasphemers of God,” such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord George Gordon Byron.  Likewise, the Reverend Henry Harbaugh (1817-1867), of German immigrant stock, had, in the words of Dr. Nathan C. Schaeffer, “hatred of every form of sham and humbug.”  This “sham and humbug” included not only such bad activities as drinking to excess and gambling, but dancing, reading novels, playing chess, playing dominoes, attending circuses, and wearing fashionable clothes.  (Be a joyless and overly earnest frump for Jesus!)

Contemporary killjoys, opponents of “worldly amusements,” continue to try to stamp out innocent entertainment.  I have heard (from a reliable source in Statesboro, Georgia) of quite strict Christian parents who will not permit their children to play soccer because the sport is “too worldly.”  Dancing has attracted criticism for a long time; the Roman Catholic Church condemned it before there were Protestants.  I can name at least one Protestant denomination which persists in its anti-dancing theological position.  These examples point to the misapplication of the Pauline ethic not being conformed to the world.  The Apostle did not mean to go through life as if one’s mother had weaned one on a dill pickle.

As for novels, just to focus on one of the targets of criticism by Finney and Harbaugh (and the Puritans before them), I make the following observations.  I have enjoyed a wide range of novels, from science fiction epics to historical fiction to comedy to serious works.  Some of them I classify as much theological as literary.  Others were just good reads.  Voltaire, a great intellect, writer, and smartass (It is better than being a dumbass!), gave us Candide, a hoot.  T. R. Pearson‘s A Short History of a Small Place, a hilarious story about life in a small North Carolina town from the perspective of a boy, contains an unforgettable account of a well-planned church Christmas pageant gone horribly wrong.  (The Virgin Mary dropped the baby Jesus, breaking his porcelain head, and startling the “camel,” who started barking uncontrollably.)  Graham Greene, a great Roman Catholic novelist, gave us both comedy and theology.  Our Man in Havana still makes me laugh, and I class The Power and the Glory with works of theology.  Frank Herbert‘s Dune and its sequels (I got lost in book five of six.)  are tales of politics, ecology, economics, religion, and struggles over scarce natural resources.  Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a meditation on hope, desperation, and what makes us human.  The book is much darker and better than even the final cut of the movie adaption, Blade Runner (1982), actually.  Graham Swift‘s Waterland, written in stream of consciousness, is a depressing tale which keeps me coming back for more.  The list of novels which has affected me deeply goes on and on.

Finally, where did I put my dominoes?  I feel like sinning again any moment now.  Wait, I cannot find them; perhaps I will have to settle for dancing instead.






Haeussler, Armin.  The Story of Our Hymns:  The Handbook to the Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  St. Louis, MO:  Eden Publishing House, 1952.

Knouse, Nola Reed, ed.  The Music of the Moravian Church in America.  Rochester, NY:  University of Rochester Press, 2008.

Sellers, Charles.  The Market Revolution:  Jacksonian America, 1815-1846.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991.