Collaborating with Grace, the Gift from Beyond

It’s interesting to note that Wesley Granberg-Michaelson joins the significant number of “Respectful Conversation” partners reporting having made some sort of journey beyond or at least through evangelicalism as part of embracing their current tradition. I’d count myself among such. Though I was born into the Mennonite church and raised by Anabaptist-Mennonite parents, whether what we believed in was Anabaptism or an evangelicalism tinged with fundamentalism was often unclear.

I resonate, then, with Granberg-Michaelson’s report that he started out evangelical, going back to a conversation in the kitchen with his mother when he was just four. There is indeed appeal in accepting Jesus before going to the dentist to make sure to be saved in case Jesus returns more quickly than young Wesley returns from the dentist.

I made the same move as Wesley except oh, maybe 100 times, and it just never seemed to take. I never seemed to become unqualifiedly saved. I remember when I was maybe 12 overhearing my mom say to my dad something along the lines of “If he doesn’t do it by the time he’s 16 he never will.” To this day I’m not sure if “it” was accepting Jesus, but I think it was. That only added to the pressure and caused maybe another 50 efforts to become saved.

But thoughts and feelings that seemed not to belong to saved people would always return shortly after a few days of the sainthood that would validate that Jesus was now in my heart. For me the solution, if such it was, to the quandary came from choosing in my twenties to try out whatever it meant to follow Jesus. I’d aim to follow Jesus whether or not I always believed there was a Jesus to follow and whether or not I had any confidence that Jesus was in my heart.

In light of that, I feel almost a twinge of envy that Granberg-Michaelson can report that the Reformed tradition “chose me.” There is gift here, the gift of feeling that Someone has chosen you which is moving and affirming in a different way than if it was primarily you who did the choosing. As Granberg-Michaelson summarizes, “Grace comes solely as God’s initiative, as pure gift. Faith is never an achievement or personal accomplishment.”

I mostly concur. And I think we Mennonites influenced by the individualism often linked to evangelical influences can be reminded by Granberg-Michaelson of our tradition’s from-the-start convictions that the walk toward and with Jesus happens as we become members of Christ’s body.

Each of our traditions can also find gifts in the summary of the Reformed tradition as confessional, covenantal, committed to the conviction that the world belongs to God, aware that sin is real indeed yet so is the journey from “guilt to grace to gratitude,” and ecumenical.

Those of us who are grandparents, as am I six times over, may also find blessing in Granberg-Michaelson’s testimony that “When I sit with my two grandchildren on my lap, my Reformed theology gets undone.”

My Mennonite theology gets undone too, though this did send me down a side-trail that may nevertheless deserve a touch of exploration:  wondering how any of us help next generations see gifts in our traditions as religions and denominations and traditions are in so many ways coming undone.

Some of my grandchildren are being raised in ways connected to Christianity, even sometimes Mennonite-flavored. Others less so. In-laws range all over the faith–or lack thereof–map. When we get together, we can’t assume that, say, Mennonite is our common understanding.

Even so, how surprising, and moving it has sometimes been to learn that even grandchildren as young as two pay attention for example to prayer at meals and regardless of their particular background will often propose or even personally initiate prayer. This includes the youngest, whose heart has somehow instructed her to put her two index fingers together and close her eyes as a gesture of prayer.

I suspect at least two factors come into view here. One is that indeed the communal emphases of our traditions hold insight. We are formed together, not simply apart and not entirely by larger cultural influences even as traditions increasingly atomize.

The other is that we do need somehow to take into account Granberg-Michaelson’s testimony to not only chasing grace ourselves but also being chosen and blessed by it whether or not we’re fully capable of understanding it. This takes me back to his thoughts on covenant.

On the one hand, I remain a committed enough Anabaptist-Mennonite that I don’t fully embrace his conviction that covenant includes infant baptism.

When an infant is baptized in a Reformed (or other) congregation, theological critics will complain that he or she has no choice in the matter. But that is precisely the point. Christian faith is carried communally; it’s personal but not individualistic.

I see the power of this understanding and in that sense am drawn to it. Still I’d prefer to look for ways the communal carrying of Christian faith Balmer rightly emphasizes does not preclude reserving baptism for the adult or at least adult-in-training believer consciously committing to the journey with Jesus.

Here I see some analogy with my marriage commitments. I could not have become the married person I am apart from community and “covenantal relationships of love.” And I respect that marriage arrangements vary across cultures in enriching ways. Yet I’m grateful to have had the privilege of intentionally–though certainly not in full understanding of what I was doing!–committing myself to another through sickness and in health until death does us part.

On the other hand, and as I ponder through the prism of my grandchildren, I see much to celebrate in Granberg-Michaelson’s report:

So, I don’t regard my prayer in the kitchen as an autonomous, individual act of free will, but as part of a mysterious movement of grace transmitted imperfectly but certainly through covenantal relationships of love. Believing and belonging are intertwined, and not always sequential.

Amen. Maybe the Mennonite in me can see adult baptism as collaborating with the grace which comes as gift from Beyond. Many thanks, Wesley, for leading us so meaningfully from guilt to grace to gratitude.

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