Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Do Not Doubt, But Believe: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

[This is the manuscript of a sermon I delivered at the 5:00 pm service at St. Barts tonight. Unusually, I went a bit off-text on this one, as I thought the text was a bit too academic for a sermon. So this is more an essay that was extemporized into a sermon, and hopefully none the worse for that.]

Poor St. Thomas. Seriously, I mean it. There's a lot of theological meat in today's Gospel, but I can never resist speaking up for St. Thomas. St Thomas the Apostle, forever known as “Doubting Thomas,” gets a raw deal, I think.

Ok, sure—after Jesus’s death, he doesn’t believe the other apostles when they tell him that, when they were hiding in a house in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to them.

But all they tell him is “we have seen the Lord.” It’s not like they give him a lot of detail.

Also, let’s point out that Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazurus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Lazarus says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his ten friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

What does that mean?

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “come to believe” occurs in the Second Step -—we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

But that belief isn’t just an abstract proposition. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we are told that “coming to believe” requires more than that; prior intellectual embraces of God fail because “In no deep or meaningful sense had we ever taken stock of ourselves, made amends to those we had harmed, or freely given to any other human being without any demand for reward. We had not even prayed rightly. We had always said, “Grant me my wishes” instead of “Thy will be done.”

In other words, “coming to believe” means trying to live in accord with what we believe, not just holding it in our minds.

Ah, but what is it we must come to believe?

Well, we say the Creed every week. Is that what Jesus is referring to here?

Hard to believe. For one thing, it doesn’t actually tell us very much, does it? As Charles Gore pointed out ninety years ago, the Creeds aren’t actually a summary of what Christians believe, they just knock out, one-by-one, all of the early heresies that tried to downplay either Jesus’s humanity or his divinity.

Not either or, the Creed insists, but both. Always both.

So, no. Not the Creeds, then. Or, at any rate, not just the Creeds.

So we just believe in the name of Jesus. It’s an intellectual proposition—Jesus equals the Son of God, therefore we are saved.

We-ell, I certainly don’t disagree with that statement, but I have to tell you, a lot of people have adhered to that abstract article of belief, and done terrible things with it.

And on the flip side, many people who have never heard the name of Jesus, or who have encountered it only through the distorting lens of those who use it to justify the sort of domination system that crucified Jesus, may exemplify the sort of love Jesus taught and lived.

My go-to source for old-school Anglican orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis, wrote that “every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. . . . In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.” [1]

So, I can’t help but think that there might be a little more to it than just intellectual adherence to the name of Jesus, or any intellectual concept for that matter.

No, I think we have to go all the way back to the very beginning of this Gospel to see what it is we must come to believe. Or, just maybe, how we must come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

John’s Gospel demonstrates what’s called a very high Christology, by which we mean it depicts Jesus as one with the Father, more consistently and more often than any other Gospel.

Add to this that it has been considered “the charter of Christian Mysticism.”[2] In saying so in his classic lectures on mysticism, W. R. Inge explained that “Christian Mysticism, as I understand it, might almost be called Johannine Christianity,” or rather that “a Johannine Christianity is the ideal which the Christian mystic sets before himself” or herself.[3]

This sounds pretty daunting, especially if when you think of mysticism the first thing that comes to your mind is Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, who is always battling all kinds of supernatural threats when he isn’t busy solving mysteries with Bilbo Baggins.

But that’s a movie, based on a comic book written in the trippy 1960s. What Inge means by mysticism is what he calls “the raw material of religion,” the experience of the immanence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.”[4]

Or, put another way, it’s what some people make of those fleeting experiences we all get of the presence of God. Abraham Maslow documented them, and called them “peak experiences.” He described them as sudden “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe.”[5]

Mysticism isn’t about power, like Dr. Strange—it’s about perception. Openness to the fact that life isn’t just getting and spending, but, ultimately, about love, and that in the experience of love is the ultimate truth about not just our own lives, but the nature of God.

And how do we make this a part of our lives?

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from Steven Moffat: “Law isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise.” Like it says in the Second Step, we act lovingly—we try to walk in the path of Jesus. Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a structure of belief but as a way—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

Coming to believe doesn’t mean perfect certainty. In AA, coming to believe can be pretty shaky, and still get the job done.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

If and when you can make some quiet space to be silent in the presence of God, be open to those peak experiences. If they come on you on their own, remember it. Don’t dismiss them, let them reassure you when you’re depressed, or feeling isolated.

Because they are part of our experience, and, as the novelist CP Snow wrote, “it’s impossible to regret one’s own experience.”[6] So too we should be very reluctant to doubt our own experience.

So embrace that experience.

Most of all, if you haven’t had such experiences, if you are unsure, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.

NOTES:

1. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy at 244-245 (2007).
2. William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism 44 (1899).
3. Id. at 44-45.
4. Id at 5.
5. A. Maslow, Religions, Values & Peak Experiences (1964).
6. C.P. Snow, The Sleep of Reason 149 (1968)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Voltaire Wept

I can't think of a single subject I agree with Ann Coulter on, and, in fact, I think her ideas are abhorrent. She's not as dangerous as, say, Ayn Rand, who has found a way of justifying humanity's most base urges to many, but she's a glib bomb-thrower., and almost a living parody of everything tha's wrong with the Right.

Silencing her is not liberal. Or progressive. Or anything good.

In purely instrumental terms, it's counterproductive--it's a data point for those who claims the "left" (a unified group, right?) don't really believe in free speech, sure, but it's worse than that: It's a betrayal of what we hold dear.

If we really believe in the democratic republic created by our Constitution, then we have to believe in freedom for the thought we hate. And silencing by threat or force those with whom we disagree with, however evil we think their views, is a betrayal of the very premise of the Constitution--that We, the people, should choose what ideas to embrace or to reject.

I recently quoted Karl Alexander's novel Time After Time: "The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas." I believe this; if violence and threats are the new response to thought that we hate, then we are saying something utterly damning about the state of our discourse and of democracy.

And admitting that we are out of ideas.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

When The Well Runs Dry: A Meditation on John 19:25b-28



[What follows is the text of my meditation given yesterday at St. Bartholomew's The Three Hours service for Good Friday. At the link, you can hear not only my meditation as delivered, but those delivered by St. Barts clergy and lay preachers. The meditations of my friends and colleagues are well worth your time.

It is an honor to be invited to participate in this service, and I am grateful, as always, to St. Barts, which has been my spiritual home for over a decade now.
]

“I am thirsty.”

Such a banal, boring sentence, normally.

But not here.

Not today. Not at the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have heard him forgive his executioners. We have heard him promise the Repentant Thief that they will meet again, in Paradise.

We have heard Jesus entrust his mother to his beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple to his own mother. Out of the wreckage of the Jesus Movement, he has salvaged a family.

Then the hard one: We have heard him despair, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in the extremity of pain, he is quoting scripture—Psalm 22. He still affirms that the God who watches him in this moment is his God.

He is still our teacher, our rabbi. Our Messiah.

But now this.


“I am thirsty.”

For the one and only time, Jesus comments on his physical state. But not on the pain from his wounds, or the exertion of keeping himself from going limp and suffocating as he hangs from the Cross.

It’s the thirst that gets under that serene confidence, that brings him to his one and only complaint through the whole bloody ordeal.

When I read this passage, Jesus always sounds a little surprised to me.

“I am thirsty.”

Maybe it’s unexpected that the normal routine needs of the body persist so far into these last hours. He expected mockery, he expected pain, he was even ready with an apt quote for despair, our rabbi was—but thirst?

Maybe the very normalcy of thirst makes him realize that this could still all end—he could be cut down from the Cross, he could still walk away from all of this—he’s still able to be thirsty, and yearn for some cool water.

Either way, that moment of thirst is so concrete, so not what a storyteller or myth-maker would focus on, that it feels completely authentic.

It’s the moment when we know there’s no miracle to come. There’s no escape, no happy ending—not this side of the grave, not yet.

Throughout this Gospel, Jesus has passed through the authorities’ efforts to capture him, he’s out-debated them, out-witted them, and just dared them to act against him.

And now they have, and, in worldly terms, Jesus has gone to the well once too often.

We’ve seen him, in this same Gospel, at Jacob’s Well, where he met the Samaritan woman. Jesus asks her for a drink, and she is surprised that he crosses boundaries of gender and traditional hostility to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

He says to her “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She asks skeptically where he will get this living water, with no bucket, and a deep well.

He tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And then she wanted that living water.

But now, on the Cross, the man who offered the stranger, the Samaritan woman, living water thirsts for ordinary water to relieve his own pangs.

We have left behind John’s mystical discourse of living water and the bread of life.

We are in the world of harsh fact, of blood and iron.

You might say that this happened in our world. We can look around us and see injustices at home and abroad. We live in a world where a state will try to rush through a series of executions before the expiration date of the medicine made to save life that they will use to end it.

A world, in short, of blood and iron.

But we can’t blame it on the world; that’s a cop-out. Thirty years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and watched a movie called The Mission, about Seventeenth Century missionary priests in South America whose students are betrayed and sold into slavery by their government and the Church. The priests who stayed behind with the students are killed trying to protect them, some by taking up weapons, but others by standing with their students in prayer.

They all die.

The scene is watched by two men, an official of the Crown and a Cardinal. They react to the bloodshed differently.

The representative of the State tries to comfort the Churchman, reassuring him that “we must work in the world; the world is thus." But the Cardinal responds, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

The gift of God who offers living water is dry now, and his thirst will not be quenched until it is quenched in death.

On this day, at the foot of the Cross, it is hard—very hard—not to think of ourselves as trapped in that world of blood and iron. Thus have we made the world.

But before we surrender to that that bleakness, maybe we need to look at the response to Jesus’s confession of need, of thirst.

Where you would expect none, compassion stirs in some of the soldiers guarding the crucified. They give him a little of their own wine, It’s “a diluted, vinegary wine drunk by soldiers and laborers,” called posca, and its offered in a moment of kindness. [1]

Blink and you miss it. But think for a moment, and let it stay with you.

Hard men, living a hard life, in which cruelty was routine. A life, we could say, of blood and iron. Yet somehow Jesus touches them; compassion is awakened, and an unexpected, unlikely act of mercy lightens the darkness for a moment.

That act of mercy should remind us that the acquiescence in despair of “thus we have made the world” is a lie, after all.

Because we didn’t make the world; it isn’t ours to make.

It’s God’s world, not ours, and the men of blood and iron are not beyond redemption; they respond to Jesus’s need when they could have just mocked him, or, even easier, ignored him.

They aren’t blood and iron at all, but flesh and blood. God’s children, whatever kind of life they are living. And they are capable of being moved into a better life.

As they have just demonstrated.

As are those we fear, and those who seemingly are trying to fashion that world of blood and iron, and shackle us to it.

As are we.

Throughout his life, Jesus spread that most wonderful of diseases, a thirst for that living water. A thirst for a better world, for God’s world, not the defaced muddle we seem so often to make of it. He spoke of the blessing of a “thirst for righteousness,” even as he spread that thirst.

And so Jesus has answered his own question, “Am I not to drink of the cup the Father has given me?” He does it, in faith, even though in his case the cup is one of suffering and death. Now, in his last moments, Jesus “thirsts to drink that cup to the last drop, for only when he has tasted the bitter wine of death will his Father’s will be fulfilled.”[2] He has been faithful to the end.

But on the way, he has met with an unexpected affirmation that this death will be a catalyst that will reshape the world. His very executioners have shown that the Gospel—the Good News—of love, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can banish the Gospel of Blood and Iron. The Sun has not even set on Golgatha, and already the first hints of the Easter sunrise are mixed with the dying of that light.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XX1 (1970) at 909 (Anch. Bib. Vol. 29A); William Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel: First and Second Series at 368 (1945).

[2] Brown, The Gospel According to John, at 930.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Time After Time After Time...



(Photo by Anglocat)

"The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas"

So says H.G. Wells, at any rate, in Time After Time, of which I have been a fan since I saw it in the theater in 1979. (Yes, children, the Anglocat is past its first youth.) And that line attributed to Wells in the film, is a big part of why. The chemistry between Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, and their genuinely sweet romance. In a 2013 reunion interview, both McDowell and Warner call Time After Time a romance story at heart. It's worth watching:



And then there's this:



That's pretty deep for a low-budget high concept (H.G. Wells vs Jack the Ripper--seriously, that's clever if cheesy) film by first time director. But the movie has heart, and the actors sell it brilliantly.

But I had no idea that it was based on a novel, which Nicholas Meyer optioned before it was published. I stumbled on the fact in reading an interview with Nicholas Meyer that popped up when I verified that it had been made into a 2017 series--which has already been cancelled before I even saw one episode.

But, bibliophile raised its lovely head, and I visited my good friend Abe, and I found my prey. That is, the first edition first printing depicted above.

I'm partway through it. Author Karl Alexander's Wells is less innocent than McDowell's, and perhaps a bit less likable. The book moves briskly, though less so than the film, and Wells has a harder time acclimatizing to the 20th Century than his quarry, Stephenson.

It's a good read. It hasn't run out of ideas yet.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Ballad of Pamela Flitton: The Classic had it Coming



One of my favorite poems since my youth has been The Ballad of Reading Gaol; its strong rhythm, its depth of feeling, spoke to me right away. And the verses beginning from stanza 7 ("Yet each man kills the thing he loves...) to the end of part I were among the very few poems I had by memory.

And then, of course, I heard the bloody John Denver/Placido Domingo duet, Perhaps Love (the 80s have a lot to answer for) which, if you just add the closing line of each sung verse "My memories of love will be of you" as sung, completely scans to Wilde's text.

No, seriously, it does. Open the link to the poem in another window, click the YouTube, and sing along--and know horror that only Cthulhu can surpass.

Once I realized this, of course, I was doomed to hear the frakking song every damn time I read the poem. And so, I fear, are you now.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, years later, when as a fledgling member of the Anthony Powell Society, I was tempted by a writing contest for the annual luncheon, and was inspired to revisit Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. There I re-encountered the femme fatale Pamela Flitton (who also destroyed great art on a whim, so, yeah, in keeping with the subject of this post), and, for the contest, sacrificed poor battered Reading Gaol:

For each man kills the thing he loves.
Well, that’s what Oscar said.
But Pam Flitton never cared to love,
And still a lot of chaps are dead.
There was, we know, X Trapnel,
With his ring and fancy cane,
He could handle the wandering of the gel,
But not the papers in the Seine.

Yes, Pam ended poor old Trapnel’s plight,
With his book drowned in water cool
But the heaviest loss of those she wrought
Was that of Kenneth Widmerpool.
What’s that you cry, but poor old Ken
Lingered a volume—or was it two?
And died of spite his death at twilight
To escape Scorp’s bitter rule.

And yet I say Pam claims the palm,
For it was she who broke the pith
Of Kenenth’s soul so Scorp could calm
his followers by giving Ken the Bith.

The lady's trail of death and strife,
may have ended with poor Ken,
It's said that Powell drew her from life
depicting Babs Skelton,
Years after our dear Pam was gone,
her memoirs can be read,
The pages rich with malice,
about the men who loved and fled.

Perhaps unurprisingly, I did not win.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"I Owe it all to Agatha Christie"/150,002

A long time ago, in a campus far, far away, I was cast in a production of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. The show was done rather campily--the last stand of my college classmates and I, and I had a gloriously ridiculous role as an ersatz Sherlock Holmes-figure. I got to ham it up with my old friend and fellow tummeler, D'Artagnan.

In fact, I suspect it was on the level of this:



(at 6:30. And yes, that's Jean Stapleton. She sings. It's like Cats, described by Roy Cohn)

I thought of this when, after writing about Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, I got curious enough to do something I hadn't done during its 1989-2013 run, and that is, watch a few episodes of Poirot.

I hadn't watched them during the show's run because I had plowed through almost the entirety of the series when I was a boy, only to become dismissive of her writing as I was drawn to more psychologically astute novelists. And, of course, intellectual snobbery grew on me.

So it was a pleasure to return to these old friends, as mediated through David Suchet's superb performance as Poirot, with an excellent supporting cast. Zoë Wanamaker in particular invests Ariadne Oliver with a precarious comic dignity, as well as heart, that turns any episode she appears in into a double act. (Best moment, when she dismissively introduces the irritatingly complacent Poirot as "my assistant"; only Suchet can glower politely.)

Some of the stories are well-produced trifles, with even less substance than I remembered. But more of them work. Dame Agatha had more on the ball than I remembered, ad some of the stories were brilliantly reimagined.

So, for example, Murder on the Orient Express: How do you film a story that was famously immortalized in 1974, re-filmed (less well received) in 2001, and hasn't been out of print for over 70 years? I mean, who doesn't know the twist ending?

Simple; don't make the story about the mystery.

No, really--MOTOE marks the hinge between the cheerful, long-running series that could have run forever and the story of a man who is coming to terms with the light and dark of his life. From here on, Poirot's moral foundations have been shaken. The script does this by having Poirot's rigidity leave to a suspect shooting himself rather than face disgrace--Poirot's clever exegesis ends not with victory, but with Hercule wiping blood off himself, clearly yearning to believe that the outcome is not his fault. This incident is teased out of the novel's beginning, but a second incident, in which Poirot and two of his fellow passengers are caught up in a crowd intending to stone an adulteress, and Poirot's dismissive acceptance of the culture's norm shocks Mary Debenham, is wholly new. It worked for me, seeing Poirot under judgment, his awkward efforts to justify himself rejected by the young woman whose friendliness has faded to icy politeness because he has not lived up to her moral expectation, gives us a Poirot off balance for once. Then the snow-embedded train, in a naturalistic move wholly lacking in the 1974 film or the novel, loses heat. Poirot's moral discomfort is exacerbated by physical discomfort.

At the end of the story, Poirot does not (as did Albert Finney's version) lightly compound a felony. No, he's insisting on the letter of the law. Enfin, Poirot will prove himself right, mon ami! His desperate self-assurance is shattered when the killers do not live down to his expectations. Poirot, whose moral code, and, indirectly, his faith has been challenged throughout this story, angrily yields, angry at himself, at his mercy that flouts his beliefs, unsure that he is doing right. In a masterful scene, Suchet conveys Poirot's anguish, as he suavely lies to the authorities, using his great prestige to secure the freedom of the killers, as they watch, hardly daring to believe that he is showing the mercy that he had refused to show. Point's anger is in Suchet's posture, his clutched rosary, his stalking away when he has finished his lie. He is ashamed of what may be the finest act of his life.

He has more adventures, some light, some dark, but he is on the road back to Styles Court, where he will meet the killer "X" who will pose the final and most serious challenge to Poirot's beliefs.

***

As I logged on to write this appreciation of a writer I once naively over-valued and then arrogantly undervalued, I saw that Anglocat has reached 150,002 visitors. Many repeat, some in error, I daresay, but still--a rather nice thing to see. So I just want to say thank you all--those who flick by and never return, those who stay and comment, those who drop in wondering what the cat is on about today--many thanks for coming on the prowl.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

That's How the Light Gets In



As I put it in Sunday's sermon, we're rounding third in Lent, and the ambitious plans of reform have been tempered (at least for me) by reality.

So it's a comfort to reach this in the appointed Epistle for today:
or I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Note that this passage is very much in the present tense. You don't have to find Paul's distancing of himself from his body persuasive; it's enough to know that even at his height as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knew the struggle against temptation, and knew what it was to lose that struggle. He knew what it was to to want the good, but to fail, and to respond to temptation with an instinctual, almost unthinking "yes!" only to then be wracked with guilt. But also to know that his failings, and our own, do not have the last word.

I'm not trying to say that, hey, if Paul can give in, who really cares? No, it's just that our own flaws, our errors, our misdeeds are included in Paul's most reassuring passage:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans gets a bum rap, in my opinion, from many who misunderstand its talk of predestination, or view its theological rigor as logic chopping (Paul's occasional rhetorical flourishes sometimes play into this misperception). Charles Gore's St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Practical Exposition (volume 2, which addresses both today's reading and Romans 8, here), is both what it says and a great decoding and teasing out of Paul's meanings by a great theologian who wrote for the intelligent lay reader.

The point is, as I summarized Nadia Bolz-Weber's workshop in 2015:
We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out, My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience to the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.

Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.

She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are forgiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.

As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)
So, and I really mean this, don't suppose your Lent is a heroic journey. It's an offering, imperfect and flawed, to a gift in which we safely trust.

And the flaws? As the great man wrote, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."