February 13, 2012

Cambridge Maryland

From the time I was 6 years old until the age of 11 or 12 my grandparents owned a farm outside of a little town called West Sundbury which is located about an hour so north of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I think my siblings and my cousins would agree that we spent some of the best days and weeks of our childhoods at that farm. Playing in the barn (at least until the infamous “snake incident”), playing with one another, being around my grandparents which was always comforting, swinging on a giant tire swing, setting up dominoes, playing baseball, playing board games, exploring the 60 acres, getting to know the folks who leased some of the land from my grandfather, etc…

One of the highlights of the year was the annual West Sunbury Fireman’s Carnival. We have all likely experienced one or more of these events. The town would hire a traveling carnival to come in with rides, food and various games which allowed the participants to win useless prizes. On occasion someone might win a substantial stuffed animal but I’m sure the money they invested to win the said animal was way more than the price of the prize. But if one wanted to influence a girlfriend, or a “would be” girlfriend a stuffed animal was the ticket.

I remember one year they had a game where the player had to throw a softball into a bushel basket which was placed at a precarious angle on a table. It wasn’t really that far away but for some reason it was difficult. For whatever reason I just had a knack for causing the ball to nestle in the basket. It was the only time in my life that I ever won one of those stuffed animals. As a matter of fact I was so good at the game that my sisters and total strangers paid me to win an animal for them. I walked up, plunked my money down, threw a couple of balls and walked away with a nice prize. I WAS THE MAN!!! (well okay I WAS THE KID!!!) After a while the proprietors wouldn’t let me play anymore. I thought that was unfair. But I guess if Vegas can outlaw card counters, carnivals can do away with ball throwers.

Along with the carnival activities were events planned and run by the firemen. There was always gambling. Spinning things that allowed people to win money; outright card gambling; dice… But the events that I liked the most were those that took place in the large fenced in “ring”. There were rodeo events, firemen contests, fireworks and the like. One evening they had a drawing for a horse/pony. I’m not sure what they are called but it was the type that Little Joe used to ride on Bonanza; Appaloosa maybe. It was white with a red/rust colored pattern. The tickets for the big drawing were $1.00 each. My grandfather bought myself, my sister’s and my cousin’s one ticket each. Wouldn’t you know they pulled my sister Ellen’s number! There has been a rumor swirling around our family for years that my grandfather was involved in some sort of shenanigans in order to get that horse but I doubt it. I can see my sister Ellen as if it were yesterday. She was probably 13 or 14 and they wanted her to ride the new acquisition around the inside of the ring. It was a rather large field surrounded by people watching the lucky winner. She sat stiff as a board as the horse ssss-lll-ooo-www-lll-yyy walked around the inside of the fence. (My sister was 14 or 15 by the time her and the horse were done!)  Thankfully it knew where to go because I don’t think Ellen had any idea how to direct him. I’m not sure if she had ever been on a horse before. If she had I’m sure she was not very experienced.

Eventually someone named the horse Gypsy (or maybe he came with that name I don’t know) and my grandfather kept it for us to ride for a couple of years. He eventually sold him. We were told Gypsy was gotten rid of because there were few opportunities to ride him and he had become ornery. Could be? Or it could be that my grandfather got tired of the expense for a horse that was rarely used.

Well, all of that to make this point. The horse was free. At least it was initially. Outside of the few dollars invested for the tickets there was no cost to obtaining Gypsy and the paraphernalia that went with him… saddle, bridle… etc. But of course he wasn’t really free was he? I mean there were expenses for the whole time he was owned. Feed, shoes, no doubt vet bills, etc.

Now let me make what might seem like a huge jump. In the church we talk about the freedom of Grace. I.e. the notion that salvation was purchased for us on the cross and that Gods love for us and subsequently His Grace is freely given.   i.e. we are declared innocent before God by His grace. There is nothing we can do to make God be more loving toward us and there is nothing we can do to make God less loving toward us. I believe all of those things. And I have preached all of those things. That being said… grace comes with a cost. Just like Gypsy was not free in the long run, grace is not either. What I mean is this…  The grace of God implies transformation in our lives. Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his land mark book The Cost of Discipleship: “When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.” (red highlight added by me)

So what does that mean? It means that indeed grace is freely given, but it implies that we become people who then whole-heartedly sell out to follow Christ. Grace received without transformation is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” He goes on to say that this notion of grace plagues the Church.

Friends, our faith is about more than attending a worship service on occasion. It means more than the idea that “I like to sin and God likes to forgive sin, what a wonderful arrangement!” It means something other than being a member of a church, or even calling ourselves “Christian.” It means something as simple and profound as this: being a follower of Jesus Christ. Not a casual observer. Not an elder, or deacon, or minister, but a FOLLOWER of Christ.

In speaking of the Lutheran church before WW2 Bonhoeffer said: “We confess that, although our Church is orthodox (correct thinking) as far as her doctrine (beliefs) of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church which follows its Lord.” (Italics mine.) I won’t say much about that other than… Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm!?!?!

Well this should be enough food for thought for now.





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