The “old language” communion service contains a prayer referred to as the Prayer of Humble Access, which includes this line:
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under this Thy table, but Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
I have always liked the poetry of this line – it’s a fascinating, humbling image. Of course, the theology I have been exposed to has always been one that was primarily built around boundless, unimaginable and yet personal love. Recently, a new acquaintance of mine argued quite convincingly that used the wrong way this could be a very hurtful and/or damaging prayer – that people who are hurting do not need or want to be reminded that they are particularly broken or unworthy. This concern is very valid; certainly, any penitential liturgy needs to be firmly grounded in the idea that we are all loved and perfect in our brokeness.
When I was younger and just starting to play the piano, my mom acquired a notepad with various amusing sayings, along the lines of “Today I practiced perfectly – even the mistakes were good!” and “I’m great – just ask my mom!”
In many ways, God’s love for us is exactly like that – we are perfect. Even our mistakes are good. Loved. Healed. Forgiven.
I was reminded of this debate after reading Sarah Miles’ book Take This Bread. In it she describes her unexpected conversion to Christianity and her work in starting a food pantry, and through it she weaves her theology. It was a supremely enjoyable read (highly recommended!) and she has very interesting theology, highly influenced by her experiences in South America during the rise of liberation theology but also uniquely her own. One of the main threads that runs throughout her book is the idea that truth is to be found in the margins, namely from the least powerful – truth is not found in what politicians or those is power say, but in the day-to-day lived experiences of the marginalized.
In light of this, she mentions at one point that she thinks that God uses not the polished, pious, “perfect” parts of us, but our broken, messy, more human side. True “Godly” community comes from people building something together out of their brokenness. Truth is found in the margins.*
I am really drawn to this idea. Communities that allow for the true range of humanity – not just the prettied up “pious” parts – have in my experience been much more authentic reflections of Christianity. And it is a true miracle that imperfect people can minister to each other so well – as often as not through these very imperfections. Furthermore, it is important to remember that we are all broken – whether it is visible, like in a drug addict everyone shuns, or invisible, like a secret compulsion or an unforgiving attitude.
I find that prayers like the prayer of humble access cited above taken on a very different light when viewed through the prism of a community that acknowledges that no one is perfect – “We are not worthy” – not a single one of us. We’re all in this together, we all mess up.
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
Thanks be to God!
* This idea also ties very interestingly into that of a “post-Empire Church,” a term currently being used by people in the