A 'triad' converged for me on a muddy night at Italian Fest yesterday. Memphians know about this event, it is one of those wonderful local events which are treasured by those who attend. Even better, if you know someone in a tent it is a chance for delicious eating. We ran into an old friend at a funeral at St. Mary's Thursday who invited us to dine at their tent Friday night. Having sampled their wares in years past, and always enjoying their company, we immediately and enthusiastically said "yes!" My mother-in-law watched baby boy so momma and I drove the twenty miles in town for the big night. Unfortunately, the past week has been very rainy and we were driving into a very large and dark sky. The heavens did open, but the rain was not too heavy, so we tramped in with umbrellas and rain gear. Sadly, the weather cut deeply into attendance. The local Catholic church uses it as a fundraiser and many booths are set up to sell wares, I was sorry to see the small crowd for all their sakes.
Aside from incredible Italian food probably the best part of Italian Fest is the endless interaction with long lost friends. I have lived in Memphis since 1970, so there are lots of folks I have know over the years. It is always great fun to grab a former student, co-worker or see an occasional mentor from days gone by. As I said, the crowds were sparse, but even so we did see some folks. A woman I taught in 8th grade was there with her 7th grader (where have the years gone). My insurance man, a former co-worker and two parishioners, a former co-worker (and former parishioner at another church) were all there. I also saw several former students. One of them, now a father of two and a full grown man, shared a story with me from his second grade. He had been sent to talk to Fr. Jeff for lying. I remembered it well, mainly because a month after our talk I asked him if he had told any lies. "No," he said to me. "And why have you stopped lying?," I asked. "Because you told me to," he replied. I still remember the sense of shock (it was twenty nine years ago) I felt when he said that. Sadly, I have not been near so successful with many others...
However, I got the rest of the story in our brief contact on a muddy path last night, and want to share it. "You saved my life," he told me. I thought it was hyperbole until he told me what we had talked about. "You told me that there are two paths and I was making a choice which one I was going to take and a light bulb went off in my head. I realized I was in a decision making moment of life. And I chose the right path and every time I am in a position to decide again I remember that day."
He was like 8 years old when we met on that day. By God's grace and mercy He was saved, in a real sense, right before my eyes. It is the way God works.I had seen him not too long ago when he needed to talk. He told me thanks for that time, as well. I said to him something that probably would be a good motto for my life. "When I die," I told him, "I hope people at the funeral will say that they always knew I would be there if they needed to call on me." [Probably I should rather desire that people would say I brought them to Jesus. I hope our Lord forgives my self focus!]
His brother and I talked about God's working and acknowledged our gratitude for Providence and Grace and then the brief conversation ended, though I admit to a deep joy from what I had heard. Now for the rest of the "triad."
In my Thursday "Bible Study" we continued our discussions around the ancient document "The didache (teaching or instruction) of the 12 apostles." It is an ancient work, perhaps predating Matthew's Gospel. Most think it written between 50-100 AD. It begins, as do numerous ancient Christian works, with "The Two Ways." This is based on Deuteronomy and the two paths God offered Israel and it was a common feature of Jewish books written in the time before and after Jesus. The 'two way' approach to spiritual life has always appealed to me (I am naturally bent toward either/or) and so it is no surprise that I am shaped by such ancient texts.I do think it is an excellent way to ponder our relationship with God. But when this young man told me I had said that there were two paths it immediately echoed in my head with the class the previous day. It felt a bit like an affirmation of what we are studying.
The third component of the triad was a series of rather anti-catholic writings I had encountered. It had the feel of "Catholics are not Christians" or "The Catholic Church is dangerous to salvation." Now living in Memphis for forty years has sort of prepared me for such talk. I have written about it often. Yet it remains frustrating to see it again, especially from people with whom I am otherwise allied in this journey of faith at this time. I am ex-communicated from the Roman Church (and it was by choices I made) and I have some major disagreements on things, but at core I remain affectionately divorced from the church of my youth and continue to deeply love much of what I learned there and many of the folks with whom I grew and worshiped for 33 years. In my mind, Roman Catholics, like all Catholics, embrace the two path model as spelled out in the Didache. We know we are saved by grace and we know faith is a gift and we receive salvation through faith. We also know our choices matter and what we do will be judged. Faith is not only intellectual it is also volitional. Believing in Jesus has a behavioral component. Offering dueling bible quotes to argue the "faith vs works" salvation question is off point (to me). I tend to think much of the catholic-protestant polemic is about semantics and in the end we are more alike than different. But be that as it may, any hold over of self doubt or self loathing from what I had read earlier in the day seemed to melt away as well after my discussion.
This man may not be "a Christian" to the satisfaction of my Evangelical friends. I doubt he would use the same kind of language that they do, but in some way I have got to believe that Jesus has a hold of him and if grace is amazing than it is all the more amazing that it is at work among people who do not fit the evangelical model of the saved.
There are two paths. Choose, and you are never too young, or too old, to make that choice.
The choice is a difficult one to keep faithfully.
Above and behind and below and within your choosing understand, however, God, in Jesus Christ, is also choosing. Amazing grace. Amazing.