Archive for the ‘God’s love’ Tag

God Cares   7 comments

We scrimp, we jerry-rig, we do without to make ends meet.  The driver’s window in my truck has been broken for two years… purposely in the down position so that it can pass inspection.  The rain pours in on the seat and floor and cups in the door pocket, then it dries out again… the door handle has started to rust tight.  My wheelbarrow is a 55 gallon barrel that I scavenged, cut in half, and bolted to a lawn mower chassis.  I buy my clothes from Goodwill, keep my shoes till the insoles wear through to the pavement, and cut my own hair.

I piece together my income from various sources.  8 months out of the year I work part time at a college library and try to make up the summer months with cutting lawns.  I also work at Home Depot part time year round.  I tried also working as a substitute custodian in the Lynchburg school system, but I rarely could make it fit between the hours of my other two job schedules.  Kimberly is usually working as well in a low-pay job.  We have somehow managed over the last 6 years, occasionally dipping into our meager savings.

Since we have not been able to find better jobs here, we decided to try our luck in Asheville, NC where Kimberly has wanted to move for years.  We put our house up for sale in April, hoping to sell it this summer.  Since I was busy fixing the house in preparation, I had to cancel my mowing jobs for the summer.  Kimberly also left her job, partly in anticipation of moving.  Now it has been three months without an offer on our house, and we have exhausted our savings on getting the house ready, our only income being my part time job at Home Depot.  My first paycheck from the library is still two months away.

We put Kimberly’s student loan payment on hiatus, postponed eye doctor visits, and cut our food budget in half.  Then we started brainstorming about how to make it through two more months of bills.  I had some vacation time from the library I could collect in wages (I usually use it to cover the Thanksgiving break gap in pay).  We could take a cash advance on our credit card (with a hefty interest rate).  I could take a loan from my retirement fund.  But borrowing from the future only works if you have some prospect of improvement–neither of us have jobs lined up in Asheville.  Kimberly had added up our average monthly bills, and even with my vacation pay, we weren’t going to make it through.

Over the weekend we started smelling a strange stench all through the house.  On monday I discovered that it was our hot water heater which had rusted through.

That same day we received an envelope from my dad’s widow with a check from my father’s estate, enough to get us through the summer and restore some of the savings we had spent on fixing up the house, including a new hot water heater.  Isn’t that just like God?

Posted July 12, 2016 by janathangrace in Life

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I’m Mad   1 comment

Irritation has been bubbling over for the last few days, quick sparks of anger at things and people that don’t work right.  This morning I wanted to heave the piece of 2×4 in my hand through the TV screen.  I pictured Kimberly seeing the broken set and asking what happened and my anger then turning on her.  I have too much sense to actually break anything valuable or start unnecessary quarrels, but my imagination runs wild with clubs and bricks, torches and car crashes.  And my anger, bridled and checked though it is, still leaks out in an unresponsive, tight face.

Ongoing irritation is always a tell that I’ve got a burr in my soul.  Sometimes I can find it and pluck it out, but other times it is hidden down in some forgotten niche.  A sharp emotional memory was poked, some reminder of past failures or insults, and it threw me into defensive mode to parry the assault on my sense of worth… but the picture faded before I recognized it and only the feeling remains.

Lord knows I have enough failings in my past to keep me trapped in shame for the rest of my days: memories that sting every time they rise up to my consciousness–people I have hurt or ignored, good advice I scorned, blindness to obvious faults, arrogance and criticism and foolishness of a hundred kinds.  I have discovered that I can only apply grace and forgiveness specifically, a balm for a particular wound.  For best results, I need to identify the thing that is niggling my heart and bring that to be bathed in God’s love.

A parent or spouse may say, “I don’t care what you have done, I love you anyway,” but we fear that if she knew THIS evil of ours, it would create a barrier to her heart.  Something whispers inside us, “She only loves me because she doesn’t know how bad I have been.”  We need to hear the words of God’s grace applied to each individual failing, for as many times as it rears its accusing head in condemning us.  It is so reassuring to show Him that fault with our doubts, and hear his resounding, “Yes, I love you still!”  Blanket forgiveness is a weak alternative to working through the details of our wrongs both internally and inter-personally.

But sometimes like today I don’t know the cause.  Perhaps it was a slowly accumulating list of smaller incidents or a subconscious sting, a dart that zipped through my heart leaving behind only the pain.  It is hard even to love myself if I don’t know what is blocking that self-compassion, to look that specific failing in the face and say to my heart, “Yes, you are still loveable in spite of your brokenness.”  Unlike shame, grace calls us to grow better from a place of full acceptance rather than out of a striving for acceptance.

I think part of my problem is failing to deal fully with each remorse as it occurs, but instead feeling bad about it and then letting it fade into the random fog of my emotional context.  I should rather recognize the full weight of it on my soul and take the effort to deconstruct and sort out the turmoil stirring beneath.  I will take some time to do that now with the last few days cache of self-blaming, a very bad habit of mine.

Posted July 26, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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When Grace Exposes Our Sin   2 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The story of Bathsheba and David is a royal cover-up that almost succeeded as they pulled all the strings in the shadows to hide their lust, betrayal and murder.  A successful subterfuge would have rotted out their own hearts as they ran from grace.  Grace can do amazing, unbelievable things, even with what is worst in us, but it must begin with the truth about us.  It cannot work with the fog of self-deception.  Whenever we do wrong and hide it from ourselves and others–make excuses, minimize it, compare it to worse sins in others–we trap our shame inside our hearts like a festering wound, and the pathogen slowly seeps throughout our souls and stains our relationships.  God rips off that wrapping, exposing the gore, not to repulse us with our wounds, but to heal us.

Shame is to sin what pain is to injury–an alarm to wake us to crippling harm and push us to act.  It is the blinking light God designed for our inner dashboard.  Unlike God, we tend to use shame against ourselves and one another as leverage to force (or stop) change just as someone might use physical pain (or threat of it) to coerce others.  In our society, shame is a weapon that parents use against children, preachers against congregants, and friends and spouses against one another to force compliance just as a bully might use his fists.  It is psychic assault.  I am often guilty with accusing frowns or glances that say silently, “You are an idiot!”  My message is “Be different so I can love you.”

The divergence between the use and misuse of shame lies precisely in grace.  We turn shame into coercion, weaponize it, by anchoring it to conditional acceptance.  I will show you love (sympathy, support, companionship) or withdraw love based on whether you yield to my expectations.  I may even get God on my side, so to speak, spiritually legitimize my demands by arguing that they are actually God’s demands and prove it through reason or scripture or a tangle of both.  But bad methods ruin good goals.  Though God has given us guidelines on how to live in healthy ways, he doesn’t force our hand and never uses love as leverage.  He loves us fully at all times regardless of what we do or don’t do, even at our worst… even when we are unrepentant, he loves us with all his heart.

The shame he built into our bodies is a warning light, not a threat–he tells us what bad things sin will do to us (tear us and our relationships apart), not what bad things he will do to us.  (Of course, in the Old Testament where law prevailed as a system, God seemed to be a punisher to force compliance while grace lingered in the shadows, but then Christ came to reveal the face of God in the full glory of grace.)  God always acts in grace, though grace sometimes is hard and painful rather than pleasant (like setting a broken leg).  He designed shame to wake us, not to coerce us.  When we use shame to drive us to change our behavior, it simply feeds legalism: the idea that if I try hard enough, I can live in such a way as to rise above shame.  God wants shame to drive us to despair in ourselves and turn instead to his grace.  The healthy remedy for shame is always grace, never more effort.  You cannot earn forgiveness, even with godly sorrow; you can only open yourself to it as it is freely given.

And so David and Bathsheba were caught by grace, their attention riveted by a dying newborn and their betrayal and murder called out by a prophet, exposing the shame that leads to salvation.  They were rescued from being lost in the darkness of hidden sin and becoming a tragedy rather than a story of redemption, actually the story of redemption through their son, the Redeemer Jesus, born many generations later.  No sin is too great for grace to resolve into beauty and goodness once it is brought into the light of God.  We avoid the light, thinking that when God sees our failures, he will love us less like others do, but it is our spiritual wounding that draws out his love and concern even more.  He cannot love us less because his love is completely independent of our goodness.  In a miraculous twist, he can even leverage our sin into greater intimacy and spiritual depth, and like Bathsheba, our darkness can be turned into light to show others the way out of the shadows for many generations to come.  Not only hers, but every redemption story of ours is inextricably connected to the redemption story, making us not only part of redemption, but of redemption history.  By receiving his grace, we become channels of God’s redemption for the world.

Posted July 6, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Dreams of Being a Cowboy   Leave a comment

A video on bullying I watched today sparked memories of my own childhood spent running from troublemakers at recess.  Only once was I seriously punched and had to go to the emergency room for stitches (my right eyebrow still has a slight split on the outside corner).   But harassment was constant during gym class and recess–I was pushed, punched, threatened, chased, tripped, mocked.  There were other danger zones as well: the lunch room, the hallway, the breezeway waiting for our school bus, and the bus ride itself was tormenting, bad enough that I started riding my bike the 10-mile round trip to middle school.  Among boys, the only mark of prowess was aggression… and girls were liked for their looks.

Kids reflect the values of a culture with a clarity unobscured by the social camouflage that adults master.  That’s why I like children’s books–bold, plain, and real.  Because of family values, I admired intellect as a boy, but that was the stuff of nerds, not heroes. The lead actors from all my favorite TV shows punched and shot and muscled their way into glory… and they always got the pretty girl (first prize).  Of course, their violence was validated by the justness of their cause, though that cause was usually self-defense, an arguably selfish motive were it not juxtaposed against the villainy of the other.  The “other” was evil, right down to the color of his clothes.

Aside from the cowboys and cops and colonels, we had a few “nice guy” actors, but no one aspired to be Andy Griffith–you liked him but didn’t want to emulate him.  Pacifists were cowards, courage was in the fists.  The hero never picked a fight, but always finished it by beating his opponent into submission. Be it kung fu or fighter jets, we all admired the warrior, not the lover, who was just a wimp if he showed up without his six-shooters.  The ultimate virtue was conquest, not love… even love was gained by conquest.

And so I set about life as a loser determined to fight my way into the trophy circle.  My goals slowly shifted from physical prowess to spiritual prowess, but success was still my path to prove my worth.  I focused all my energy to become a champion for God, which is to say, having a wide impact on others.  Success is just as strong an addiction as gambling, even if you’re not a winner… especially if you’re not a winner.  But unlike other addictions, it reaps praise, not shame, and moral validation, not warning, both from the world at large and from the church itself.

Cultural values that co-opt religious faith are the most pernicious and blinding of our defects.  When church and society link arms, escape is nearly impossible, and far from looking for an exit, us losers are desperate to launch ahead.  Unfortunately, as success grows, it clogs up the opening for grace. Success would have obviated my need for grace, a pitfall of all self-made men, even those who ostensibly credit God.  But grace blocked my chase after success.  It shackled me to loser-hood until I was forced to admit that my accomplishments don’t validate me.  Apparently God doesn’t need my efforts any more than a father needs the help of his 3-year-old to change a tire.  The toddler is not valued because of what he does, but who he is–a son.

Success still holds a little place in the corner of my heart–just in case–sort of like the spot reserved for a Porsche convertible that someone’s rich uncle might give me.  Both daydreams would likely be a burden rather than a blessing.  I trust God’s path for me, and I’m content just to hold his hand… most days anyway.

Posted June 15, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Star-Crossed   6 comments

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.” –Elizabeth Alexander

That is profound.

The greatest pain arises from the profoundest joy. To eliminate loss, one must abandon love since in this broken world suffering and death are not simply a risk, but a certainty.  Love inevitably leads to sorrow.  As C. S. Lewis so powerfully explained:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Elizabeth Alexander originally wrote to mourn the loss of her young husband to sudden death.  “The story seems to begin with catastrophe,” she wrote, “but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.”  She is no Christian, but her personal journey reflects powerfully the great story of which we are all a part. Anywhere we open our book, we find tragedy–brutality, abandonment, hatred, violence, suffering–so that we must go back and back to the very start to discover that all this pain springs up from the love that inspired creation, and to understand that all of our suffering is borne in the great heart of God himself, who willingly embraced all our agony to gain the inexpressible joy of loving us.  The cross is a tragedy, but it is more fully and deeply and finally a love story, and the end will be glorious.

Posted June 12, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Grace Piled on Grace   7 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The world is not halved into heroes and villains, angels and demons, righteous and sinners.  David is the truth that demolishes that lie: an adulterer with remarkable faith, a murderer specially anointed by God, a law-breaker who wrote Scripture.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Since we cannot sort humanity into upper and lower, we settle for before and after: we were all filthy rags before, but some of us have gone through the conversion wash cycle, and now we’re clean.  Except David doesn’t let us off so easily since he was “a man after God’s own heart” long before his debauchery with Bathsheba and treachery against Uriah.  We are fallen creatures, all of us, always in need of more forgiving and saving grace to redeem our fresh failures.

But we don’t need David’s example to reveal the cracks in our souls over which we daily stumble.  I know my sins, it is my acceptance I doubt.  And that is the startling truth of David’s story.  The deep failings of God’s favorites astounds me.  How can God put up with such flawed followers, not to speak of using them as his champions and spokesmen.  As the inimitable Alexander Whyte once suggested, who knows but that David wrote earnest psalms during those nine months of self deception as his illegitimate son formed inside the belly of his stolen wife until the prophet of God came to strike a blow to his bunkered conscience.

How could such a man be chosen as God’s mouthpiece?  Unless the very truth meant to be shared was of the unquenchable grace that God lavishes on us all.  If God’s central message is the gospel, that every human, however flawed, is loved forever, is offered the open heart of God in spite of repeated rebellion, then what better messenger than one who so clearly illustrates this grace in his own life?  The “man after God’s own heart” was a pleasure to God not because of his goodness, but because of his childlike faith and humble resting in God’s unquenchable love–the Gospel According to David.

Posted June 8, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Christmas Redemption   9 comments

The day before Christmas, having slept 4 hours because of pushy dogs, I stood on a cement floor all day at work, feeling upset by a conflict with a fellow employee. When I got home I was greeted by a mess of chicken grease that had overflowed the crockpot, pooled on the counter, and spilled down the cabinets, the footstool, and across the floor.  I cleaned it up and flopped down exhausted, ready to veg out in front of the TV for a while before dragging myself to our Christmas eve communion service.  Kimberly had a different plan.

She wanted to have family prayer with singing, reading, and sharing before we went to church.  I was okay with religion at our house or God’s house, but was too tired for both.  I needed some down time, but she needed to prepare her soul for the service.  What kind of man would block his wife’s spiritual needs?  So I yielded.  After supper, she lit the candles, turned off the lights, and cued up the music, and like a good husband, I sat and pouted.  After the music and reading, Kimberly shared personally while I tried to stay awake in the dark, which was the least I could do… I mean, it was literally the least I could do (huffing would have taken extra effort).

I was very generous with my silence during prayer and on the way to church, rounding off the corners of quiet with a few words to keep her at bay so I could stew in peace.  Nothing messes up a good case of resentment so much as having to explain it to someone else, especially someone reasonable.  In the pew I quietly complained my way through the boring homily, the artless choruses, and the tiresome liturgy.  Then communion.  Go meet God, ready or not.  Suddenly the sermon and songs seemed to complain about me–the question after all is not about a sophisticated form, but a sincere heart–and by that measure, the artless always win.

God does not force Himself on us–He comes as a suckling baby and ends up nailed to a cross, living his life as a penniless wanderer.  He does not wow us with splendor or scare us into submission, but opens His heart to us with gentleness and vulnerability.  Instead of overriding our weakness, He comes to share our weakness, to be one of us, to understand and empathize and breath grace into our brokenness.

Most of my life I used the Lord’s Supper to torment my soul into compliance, using the death of Jesus as a bludgeon rather than a salve, as though communion were a celebration of the giving of the law rather than the giving of His life.  But tonight, instead of telling me, “Your resentment is bad, stop it!”  God says, “your resentment is a sign of pain, let’s try to love and listen to that hurting heart of yours.”

Together we rewind the evening’s tape.  I am tired. I need rest. Kimberly needs prayer.
“Stop right there,” He says. “What happens next?”
“My needs are less important, so I have to deny my own needs,” I answer.  I think about it for a minute. “Actually, that is the cruel message I have heard all my life–that my needs are not important enough to matter, and if my needs don’t matter, then I don’t matter.  No wonder I feel hurt when I’m forced to deny my needs.”
“Were you actually forced?” He asked.
“No, but I know it’s what you want, so I have to do it.”
“So you feel that I care more about Kimberly’s needs than yours?  Actually, you feel as though I consider everyone’s needs as more important than yours, that you are last in line, and that I therefore care least about you and your feelings.  That is heart-breaking!  I want you to know that I care more about you and your needs than you could ever imagine.  You are precious to me, uncountably precious.  The resentment you feel right now is just your heart standing up for you against those lies that say you don’t matter.  And I’m here to tell you that you do matter, that you matter supremely to me.  That is what the cross really means which you celebrate now in communion.  I welcome you, resentment and all.  Come, Let me hold you!”

After that it was easy to slip my arm around Kimberly as we knelt together at the communion rail.  In the deep affirmation of God’s love, peace flows into our hearts and relationships.  We are loved.  That is all that matters.

Posted December 28, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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