by Rev. Jeff Welch
In my sixty years of being a Christian and over thirty as a pastor I have discovered that some of the most profound experiences of grace in my life have come through situations that were not intentionally meant to produce an experience of grace. I have attended, lead, or participated in hundreds of worship services with hundreds of well-planned liturgies with the finest of music and preaching. I have attended gatherings of all types, each intended to produce grace-filled moments of holiness and wonder. There have been many experiences of grace in my life in the Church, but I have found that even as well planned as we are as Presbyterians, how decently and in order we invoke Grace’s presence, that grace is often carried through, and essentially is, an unintended consequence.
Many of us have heard stories of unintended consequences, some of which have produced great pain, while others may have produced great gain. I can recall a number of stories about unintended consequences, perhaps the most profound example of pain is the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Oriental rat fleas that traveled on Asian Black Rats spread the disease. Much later, it was pointed out that in the years prior to the Black Death, zealot Christians had been actively eradicating the cat population, thus allowing the rat population to flourish. They believed cats were the vessels for Satan’s spirit. Fewer cats, less of the Devil, right? In their zeal, they could have never imagined being (at least partially) responsible for up to 60% of Europeans dying.
On a much lighter and fun note, sometimes unintended consequences produce gain. Folklore would claim in 1853, and American chef George Crum (aka George Speck) was preparing dinner at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Saratoga Springs. French fries were popular at the restaurant and one day a diner complained that the fries were too thick. Although Crum made a thinner batch, the customer was still unsatisfied. Crum finally made fries that were too thin to eat with a fork, hoping to annoy the extremely fussy customer. The customer, surprisingly enough, was happy – and potato chips were invented! Unintended consequences.
At the last meeting of Presbytery I experienced one of those moments of grace that was an unexpected consequence of the action of others. It had already been a busy day at the Presbytery meeting and we were enjoying a worship service replete with buoyant congregational singing, earnest prayers, a fine sermon delivered by Holly Inglis, as well as commissioning our delegation to the 223rd General Assembly. Gary Hardesty invited us to the Table with an Easter greeting. As Gary, alongside co-celebrant Moderator–elect Diane Wilson, were readying the elements, we were asked if we would hold the elements until all had been served, so we could commune together in a unifying action. The bread was passed, and each of us took a well-cut rectangle of dark bread and held it until all were served. Unlike other situations (in which similar instructions had been given regarding the partaking of the elements) we were not immediately instructed to eat of the bread together. Instead trays of cups were immediately being passed. The thought that came to my mind was, “how am I going to hold the bread, pass the tray, select a small cup of juice without spilling either my cup, or God forbid, the whole tray?” And then came the unexpected moment of grace.
Faced with the challenge while sitting on the end of the row, three options or choices became available. One, I could simply be served by the server. With bread in my one hand, I could simply hold my bread, take a cup and let the server decide how to serve the rest of my row. Secondly, I could use my one empty hand to hold the tray of cups and serve the person to my right, trusting that I would figure out a way for me to pick up a small cup of juice from the tray. Or thirdly, I could put down my bread in my lap and use two hands on the tray so I might pass and hold the tray while still securing the liquid portion “of the visible and outward expression of an invisible and inward grace.’’ My neighbor made it easy, she put the bread in her lap allowing me to hold onto my bread awkwardly taking the cup as she received the tray from the server and passed it down after retrieving her own cup. When all had been served we ate and drank together demonstrating that symbolic unity desired by the co-celebrants.
Reflecting upon that moment, I found grace in the awkward situation that led to producing unintended consequences. Grace that was unexpected, not preplanned or contrived.
First, I found grace in contemplating being served. Flashes of scenes from the life of Jesus flew through my head. I thought of when Jesus was in the home of Simon the leper and an unidentified woman pours an entire jar of pure nard over Jesus’ head anointing him with a perfume that filled the air in the room, of Mary in Lazarus’ home as she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet and washes Jesus’ feet using her hair and finally, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in the Upper Room as Peter resisted. The remembrance of the grace that is sometimes found in the humility of simply receiving and not having to reciprocate flooded over me. The very possibility of the grace of Sabbath rest expressed in being served, and being able to focus upon the gift of the sacrament was present in the awkward moment.
In the awkward moment, and in that which actually happened, I found grace in the act of the woman putting her bread down in her lap in order to serve others and receive the grace that was found in her serving the cup. There is grace in being willing to risk that which is precious, so as to serve others and in doing so receive grace upon grace. A voice that I imagined to be Ulrich Zwingli’s, screamed in my head for a moment, “lighten up, it’s only bread, so what’s the big deal she put it down in her lap?” Never-the-less, her willingness to put down something precious for me so that I might fully enjoy this remembrance remains in my mind.
Finally, I reflected upon the grace that was received and practiced so that somehow all were served and I did not hear the crash of a tray full of cups or a call for “cleanup on the center aisle.” The silence was an expression of grace that is found in cooperation, creativity, and problem solving that is possible in the community that is truly focused on being there for one another. The phrase “one another” is used some 100 times in 94 verses in the New Testament. One third of the “one another” uses are dedicated to urging church unity. Another third of the “one another” passages instruct us to love one another. Fifteen percent of the passages stress humility and deference among believers, while the final 15% or so of the “one-another” passages speak of truth telling, encouragement and hospitality. We demonstrated we were there for one another and that practicing that forgiveness about which Holly preached might be a possibility.
I was surprised by the grace found in unintended consequences. May we each find ourselves blessed in such a way. Yes, even in our work as brothers and sisters in the Presbytery of St. Augustine.
Grace and peace,