I write this month’s column from Pere Marquette State Park, near St. Louis. It’s one of my favorite places of natural beauty in the Midwest, and a perfect location for a minister’s study group retreat. This year we are studying the work of the “father of liberal religion,” 18th-century German theologian Frederich Schleiermacher. It’s probably why I’ve been peppering my sermons with stuff from his work this fall.
I attended school near here at Principia College, about five miles south on the “Great River Road” that winds along the banks of the Mississippi. I know these woods well. Here one finds in the fall hundred-foot bluffs, eagles, and trees still abloom with color. It is easy to feel gratitude for life and recognize a world filled with beauty. A sense of wonder and awe is just steps away from my rustic cabin door. I did nothing to deserve this feeling that I’m experiencing other than be alive. That’s what grace is all about.
This sense of grace can be a challenge to hold during the holiday months. Every year in November and December I take a breath and keep holding it until January, or at least it feels that way. I love celebrating the holidays in my home and church — but do my best to stay clear of the malls. The messages still get through.
I like to pretend that the materialism doesn’t exist, but it does, and that requires accepting the world as it is—not cling to an ideal of how it might be were we to have a magic wand, but to accept those things we love as well as those things with which we struggle. This requires compassion and forgiveness. Can we forgive a world gone crazy with consumption and consumerism? Can we have compassion for others whose view of the holidays challenges our own? Can we even forgive ourselves when we get sucked, just a little, into the madness? The answer is yes, yes, and again, yes. In this way, we reclaim that sense of grace amidst the seeming chaos. These are some of the lessons the season holds.