"I dwell in Possibility--a fairer House than Prose"
(The title is thanks to Emily Dickinson's essential and wondrous poem.)
A few months before my last trip to France a couple of years ago, I spent some time brushing up on my French grammar. Which got me thinking that maybe it wouldn’t hurt us to spend a little time reviewing our English grammar, too. Specifically, tenses.
Look, I can see your eyelids starting to droop. You’re thinking, “What the hell? She's a pastor, not an English teacher!" But au contraire, mon frere, as the French say. I have been both. Besides, grammar can be fun. And it can lead us directly into the heart of Christian doctrine.
What? You don't believe me? Then grok this: in Genesis it's says we were born—created in the image of God--to be. And to be is what we call the infinitive. The infinitive—that’s the beginning of all the action that you can get out of a verb. The infinitive is the seed of meaning.
When you apply a verb to people, it sounds different. The verb gets customized so that what is said one way in the “I” form is said another way in the “You” form and the “He/she” form, the “We” form and the “They” form.
You know what I mean. I am. You are. She is. That's “the present tense.”
I am a child of God. You are a child of God. We are children of God. Present tenses. Because what’s happening in the sentence is what’s happening right now.
But not everything happens in the present. Some things happened beforehand. In the past. Some of us were baptized, right?
I was baptized. I was baptized. It happened once and then it was over, an event, the event of my baptism or yours. This is called the simple past because it is about an event that happened and then was over and done. Such as, I ate lunch today. (Orzo salad with herbs, by the way.)
Then we get the “past perfect.” I have had times of great fear and times of self-loathing. That’s not a particularly happy sentence, but you can probably relate to it. It’s a sentence in the past perfect tense because it talks about a state that was on-going, but has come to an end--perhaps not forever, but at least for now.
Now check this out, this quote from Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
This is a long sentence. (Personally, I would have edited it.) This sentence talks about an event that began in the past, but continues to be true. It is ongoing. Grace continues to be the means of salvation and therefore of comfort to all humans. Grace is profligate and self-sowing. Grace is not an event that happened once and then was over, like a baptism. Grace is the ongoing characteristic of our relationship with God that began with but didn't end with baptism. In other words, the baptism happened, but the grace inaugurated in the baptism continues to be with us to this day. It’s on-going.
Grace is like the infinitive form of a verb--except that rather than being the seed of all meaning, it is the substance of all loving.
That phrase "by grace you have been saved," is “past imperfect” because though it began in the past, it was not completed in the past, but spills over into the present as well. I like the past imperfect. I like it a hell of a lot.
Now, you can figure out the future tense. It’s all about what’s for dinner, really. “I will eat calamari this evening. I will order the peanut-butter pie for dessert. I will bring along Rolaids for the drive home.”
But the subjunctive tense is more interesting. Now, don’t roll your eyes just because I said “subjunctive.” It’s not that bad. The subjunctive talks about how the future is made or could be made to be. The subjunctive is the tense of the possible. God loves me so that I may show love to others. What's wrong with that?
Here’s a sentence by St. Paul in the fourth chapter of Romans: “For this reason, it depends on faith (present tense) in order that the promise may rest (subjunctive) on grace and may be guaranteed (subjunctive) to all of Abraham’s descendant’s, not only to the adherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
Faith makes the promise possible for the present as well as the future.
Okay, now we turn to Luther who, in his little handbook for families, The Small Catechism, tries to explain to children what the third part of the Apostle’s Creed is all about. That’s the part where we say we believe in the Holy Spirit.
Luther begins by explaining that we believe that we can’t believe if it’s up to us alone. He writes: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith”—that’s all past perfect) “just as”--get ready for the subjunctive—“the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth.”
Hear the subjunctive? The Holy Spirit? She makes possible the calling, the gathering, the enlightening, the making holy of people.
Okay, so if the subjunctive is the tense of the possible, the conditional is the tense of tense of causality, of logic. It carries the sense that a causes b to happen. Or that A follows B in a logical sequence. This tense can serve a useful purpose in helping us to order our world.
If it doesn’t rain, we can go to the lake today. If the kids do their chores, we will pay them handsomely.
But just because you can make a logical, conditional sentence out of any two events, it doesn’t mean there is necessarily any truth in it.
For example, how many of you—perhaps in your younger years—when you were seriously crushing on somebody who didn’t give you the time of day, have said to yourself, “Well, if I am just charming enough, she/he/they will have to fall in love with me.” Didn’t you ever figure someone loving you depended mostly on you being charming?
Well, victim to faulty logic, as likely as not, your ego took a bruising. No matter how charming we are, that will not "cause" someone to fall in love with us!
Or what mother, holding the wrinkled newborn in her arms, says “If you are a good baby—one who sleeps through the night at 7 weeks, and is potty-trained by 2 and reads chapter books by 1st grade—then I will love you.”?
What father, walking his daughter to softball practice, says “If you strike out six runners and don’t hit any foul balls and make it on base twice and spit like they do in the major leagues, then I will love you.”
Love that must be earned isn’t love.
But that’s a common theological error: to construct a God of the conditional, to freeze-dry and reduce the God who makes all things possible to the God of human logic and probability. A great many voices speak about God’s relationship to us in just that way. Much of contemporary Christianity is predicated on the belief that God’s love for us is conditional upon our behavior, as if God could not or would not choose to freely love us, unless we put up our behavior or our intellectual assent as collateral.
I guess that's fairly persuasive. It's logical, orderly. And it sidesteps the messy need to work for justice and mercy and understanding and cooperation because it turns all our focus inward to determine our individual spiritual fitness. And it turns our focus outward chiefly to condemn the spiritual unworthiness of others--those who are different from us, more often than not.
But however persuasive, this is lousy, lazy theology. Because all those ifs pre-suppose a God who is domesticated and predictable--albeit not very nice or mysterious. And if our salvation depends on our worthiness, then why do we need God at all?
The God of the conditional is a God we construct to give us a sense that we’ve got the whole shebang under control--but we’ve let God hang on to the rubber stamp. Generous of us, wouldn't you say?
But the God of the subjunctive is no puppet of human logic. The God of the subjunctive makes all things—even unbelievable things—possible.
The gospel of John records Jesus as saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Ephesians says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
The God of the subjunctive is the God of the possible. But the God of the possible is one we can’t control. Think of it--we wouldn’t have chosen crucifixion for God. We probably wouldn’t have thought up resurrection. That’s because the God of the possible is the one we can’t control.
We wouldn’t have thought up the Holy Spirit. And we are surely too addicted to blame and judgment to have thought up the extremes of grace and mercy we believe characterize God.
Yet it is this dwelling in possibility that reminds us again and again of the limitlessness of the God language cannot capture. That we may be forgiven, that we may forgive. That we may live and love the whole world around us. The God of the subjunctive makes possible that we may say with all God’s people the great and holy word that means "let it be so." That word--Amen!