This past fall I had the opportunity to read The Peaceable Kingdom and Prayers Plainly Spoken by Stanley Hauerwas. This was my first real engagement with his works but it was wonderfully productive. I was struck, once again, by his claims that we need to recognize the depths of our sinfulness. Thus it is a fitting time to explore these thoughts at the beginning of Lent. This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday.
The service from the Book of Common Prayer reminds us,
“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
This practice and prayer reminds us of our sinfulness and our punishment:
“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Hauerwas states, “We must be trained to see ourselves as sinners, for it is not self-evident. Indeed, our sin is so fundamental that we must be taught to recognize it; we cannot perceive its radical nature so long as we remain formed by it…[we are sinful] because we deceive ourselves about the nature of reality” (PK, 30-31).
For Hauerwas, sin is primarily an “overreach[ing] of our powers. It is the attempt to live…as if we are or can be the authors of our own stories (this is also primary emphasis of the modern individual). Our sin is a challenge to God’s authorship and that we are characters in the drama of the kingdom (PK, 31). In turn, we use force and violence over others to ensure this illusion of control and self-authorship.
We can only learn what our sin is by discovering our true identity by locating the self in God’s life as revealed in the life, death and resurrection. Only when we are aware of our sinfulness, can we claim the forgiveness and peace with God that is offered through Jesus.
Thus the awareness of sin is a primary theme in Hauerwas’ collected prayers. Prayers, such as these, become a practice of doing something about our sin…it is a means of self-examination in community and confession. Here are a few excerpts.
One prayer begins, “Dear God, we often ask you to invade our lives, to plumb the secrets of our hearts, unknown to ourselves. But in fact we do not desire that. What we really want to scream, if only to ourselves, is “Do not reveal to us who we are.” We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions” (PPS, 39).
A line from another prayer suggests, “We want you to like us, and so we try to hide who we are” (PPS, 66).
Hauerwas states, “For without such a narrative the fact and nature of my sin cannot help but remain hidden in self-deception. Only a narrative that helps me place myself as a creature of a gracious God can provide the skills to help me locate my sin” (PK, 31). Only in a community committed to studying this particular set of stories and displaying them can we rightly recognize our sin.
In another he speaks, “Gracious God, forgive us our presumptions to confess our sin. Only your favor makes it possible for us to know and acknowledge our sins” (PPS, 67).
Hauerwas suggests that unless we learn to relinquish our perceived powers of self authorship, we are not capable of the peace of God’s kingdom. Peace is movement of God’s people who have put themselves under God’s story and authorship rather than be driven by an assumption that we control history. Once we accept our emplacement in God’s ongoing story we no longer need to manipulate the world around us to promote our own story.
Hauerwas prays, “You have called us to your peaceable people. We do not like it, but help us live it and in the living learn to love you” (PPS, 65). This peace does not just exist between God and us, within ourselves, or even with others, but also creation…there is an ecological component. One prayer in particular caught my attention. “Help us to live at peace with those creatures not like us-that is, dogs, pigs and even, God help us, chickens. And help us to live in peace with ourselves.” (PPS, 57).