“Tree of Life,” the film directed by Terrence Malick, takes us on a meditative journey. As impressionistic images of nature, the cosmos and an American family flow onto the movie screen, a voice softly speaks these words: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” We later learn that it is the voice of Mrs. O’Brien, the mother in the film.
Mrs. O’Brien whispers more: “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way.” And then she says: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself; accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; accepts insults and injuries.”
Sounds very biblical. And in the spirit of Martin Luther we may ask, “What does this mean?”
You are important
For many years, Edith and her husband owned and operated a restaurant. Although retired, Edith still works part-time driving long distances to deliver packages for a local business.
Always present and working behind the scenes at church events, she calls little attention to herself, but we all know of her faithfulness in Bible study and prayer. With Edith, it’s about God, and it’s about you.
Karen is an active mother who speaks her mind. And what comes out of her mouth exudes caring, enthusiasm and generosity. She is the kind of person who can look you in the eye and transform your lemons into lemonade. To Karen, you are important. You are God’s child, and you are loved.
Jenny is a kindergarten teacher. She is active in the town’s arts alliance. She takes the minutes at congregation council meetings. When she sits down at coffee hour, she listens to you and makes her way to new people to listen and talk some more.
Far from being a Pollyanna, she sees the spark of good in everyone she knows. Some might say that she has pitched a big tent and everyone is welcomed.
These women from my congregation show me the way of grace — generosity, love and forgiveness.
You are the ELCA
For some, the acronym ELCA stands for a hierarchy with offices and computers in a Chicago high-rise. But in reality, the ELCA does not live in Chicago. The ELCA lives wherever you live.
And it is present in villages, towns and cities and in countries that have never heard those four letters spoken together. The ELCA is a means by which grace can be shared in the world.
Given the scope of needs around the globe — ranging from famine overseas to polarizing domestic politics often masking as Christian ethics — many voices and hands continue to make a positive impact in difficult situations, showing the way of grace.
In the Horn of Africa, the ELCA pitches its tent with other churches and relief organizations that provide a way of grace to those who have walked for days with nothing to eat or drink.
In neighborhoods near and far, the local Lutheran church is a center of spirituality and hospitality, a place that ministers to “the least of these .”
We, the ELCA, are an embodiment of 1 Corinthians 12. There we are reminded that when one member hurts, all suffer. And further, we, the ELCA, seek to be 1 Corinthians 13, where the apostle Paul poetically describes a hierarchy of sorts with love at the top, trumping knowledge and preaching.
The potential for the way of grace in a denomination with 4.2 million Lutherans who are spread out into about 10,000 congregations is tremendous.
The wave of grace
Think of the wave as it is “performed” at sporting events or concerts in big arenas. Groups of people in the audience stand up and in unison — section by section — wave their arms and sit down, resulting in an image of a wave sweeping around the stadium.
Imagine a wave of grace beginning in your home congregation and continuing around the world. Or maybe the wave starts far away and it’s your turn to stand up and hold your arms up high. Can we begin a wave of grace? Or maybe catch that wave and send it on?
I’ve experienced the way of grace upon meeting Lutherans from different places and circumstances. Their lives have moved me to see the world a little differently. These encounters were made possible because our paths crossed being part of the same body of Christ.
The ELCA — your church and mine and over 10,000 all together — is an opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of grace. The ELCA opens doors into places, situations, tragedies and celebrations that are near and far — but only if we decide to keep those doors open and step in.
“And now faith, hope and love abide but the greatest of these is love.” It is the way of grace.
Fern Lee Hagedorn is the Friday morning voice of WJFF, public radio in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. She is a member of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Narrowsburg, N.Y.