Archive for the ‘God’s love’ Tag

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.

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Posted December 28, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Happily Rejecting the God of My Youth   2 comments

I’ve been staying with dad for 10 days, keeping an eye on him while his wife is in Australia.  Dad is a man of habit, finding comfort in a daily routine.  I think he would call it discipline.  Each morning he gets up, makes a cup of coffee, and takes it into his office where he has a long-established pattern of devotions: singing old hymns, reading the Bible, and praying through his list of requests.  I expect he would feel discombobulated all day if that pattern was knocked loose.

Each morning here I go for a walk along the Broad River Walkway.  At first I was taking along Barney, their border collie mix with long, thick, uncontrollable hair, but he kept falling behind, so I started walking alone.  The solitude crowded my head with thoughts, mostly reflections on childhood and its repercussions.

Broad River Walk

Broad River Walk

This morning, prompted by the choruses I sang with dad last night, I headed out to walk with the old hymnbook tucked under my arm.  The red cover was warn smooth and dark from years of family devotions, the ancient supportive tape on the corners blending seamlessly.  As I stood and watched the water cascade over the spillway that stretches between the banks, I flipped the book open and the pages divided at “Nearer My God to Thee.”  Those words dusted off cob-webbed memories of my deeply religious youth when I was “sold out to God” as we called it.  I spent hours in prayer and Bible reading, I listened to sermons and worship on the radio, on tape, and at church.  I read Christian authors and talked with Christian friends.

All this effort was to reach an oasis, relief for my parched soul, but the God I sought was a mirage.  The farther into the desert I pushed myself, year after year, the more lost I became, until I was crawling through the sand towards water that wasn’t there, and I finally collapsed.  Every step in the direction of a misconceived God is a step away from the true God.

I worshiped a God who was harsh and judgmental, and based on these assumptions, all my Bible reading and prayer and devotion simply drove me deeper into this skewed faith.  I read verses about God’s wrath and judgment that negated for me any verses about His gentleness and love.  Sermons about God’s kindness came across to me as soft and insubstantial, as merely a carrot to get me to work harder at being good so God would accept me.  The more I sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” the more unworthy and rejected I felt–who could ever measure up to absolute perfection?  I worked to strengthen my faith, but it was faith in God’s power and omniscience and righteousness that were scrubbed of any scent of His patience and mercy and grace.  That is, his power and omniscience and righteousness were frightening, not encouraging, the basis for his condemning me, not his rescuing me.

Love was there, but it was not foundational as these other attributes were.  Fundamentally, God was pissed off at me and could only be mollified by the death of his son.  Jesus kind of forced God into accepting me against his better judgment, bought God off so to speak.  The harder I worked to be the person God wanted me to be, the more I realized how far short I fell.  I heard Amy Grant’s song “My Father’s Eyes” and knew the look in those eyes: eternal disappointment.

This was not the kind of error that I could tweak my way out of.  It was fundamental, all encompassing.  It was not until my worldview, my belief system, crushed me beyond recovery that I was able to let go and discover the God in whom I now believe, a God of infinite grace.  It has taken many years to unlearn, discard, loosen my fearful grip from my long held false securities and to cling stubbornly to my new faith, my new God, my new life and relationships… and even a new Bible and hymnbook.  Nearer my God to thee.

Posted August 9, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Risky Grace   6 comments

This morning I was cruising down Lakeside Drive when a pokey car from a side street turned in front of me.  That’s one of my pet peeves.  If a driver feels some aggressive need to pull in front of me, fine, just go fast enough to stay out of my way.  I stepped on my brakes and would have forgotten it, except the guy slowed down even more, creeping into a gas station.  “REALLY!?” I ranted to my dashboard, “You had to cut me off ’cause you were in a hurry to… STOP?”

I can self-justify with the best, but I’m not so far gone as to equate my petty irritations with righteous indignation.  I knew I wasn’t channeling Jesus with my defensive driving.

This also suggests a serious limitation to that great advice to “be in the moment.”  Oh, I was in the moment, all right, totally in the moment, that scowling, growling, hand-clenching moment.  Sometimes you need to get out of the moment, be a little less present, to grasp the bigger picture.

So I tried to talk myself down.  I noticed that he was a geezer, and they do everything slower, everything.  But I’ve played that chess game with myself before, so I know all the moves.  I responded with, “Hey, driving faster takes no extra strength. Retirement ain’t gonna slow me down.  That’s no excuse.”  “Ah,” said my mental opponent, “And how many wrecks will your age-diminished reactions cause before you slacken your speed?”  Okay, that was a surprise, a new argument that sounded suspiciously like my wife.  How did she get in my head?  That’s totally unfair–two against one.

But her voice is the one I really want to hear, not because it is right, making me wrong and bad, but because it is gracious.  She wants to find peace through mutual acceptance of our weaknesses.  In contrast, I find that when everyone follows the rules, we all get along.  Legalistic happiness.  It’s pretty common in church.

The problem is when we screw up… and we all screw up.  The law has no margin for error, so it makes us all losers, and we scramble to escape that weight of condemnation.  Each time others break our rules, rules that ensure our safety, we feel slighted, devalued, and disrespected, and even small slights cut deeply because we already agree with them, we believe we deserve no respect.  When someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel less of a person, so I get defensive.  In my relationships I push others to change, to conform, to live in a way that does not tear open my self doubt.  Everyone, follow the rules!

The voice of grace sounds so small and useless against such visceral drives, and it calls me to abandon the very thing that is protecting my fragile sense of well-being: my ragged record of good, which is my only justification for squeezing others into line.  Grace whispers that we are loved regardless of our record, that we are valued fully even in our failures.  But I find it hard to trust.  Grace is like oxygen–once you let it in, it is available to everyone in the room.  If you allow grace to cover you as a loser, then it necessarily covers all losers, and then you have to drop your legalistic demands.  But their flawed conformity to rules is the only thing keeping me protected.  For all its defects and failures, the legal system looks pretty safe, and grace looks pretty risky.  No wonder faith is the only way into grace.

Posted February 16, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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God’s Delight in Me [God’s Love Letter]   Leave a comment

Matt. 1:5 Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth.

Ruth was the original Cinderella.  From a pagan, destitute widow she became the affluent, honored bride of Boaz and the great-grandmother of King David.  Tales of rags to riches are told in a thousand tongues, and American versions come with a moral: work hard enough and every pauper can reach the palace.  Whether Carnegie or Rockefeller, Lincoln or Edison, our heroes rise from obscurity and poverty to wealth and fame by their own sweat.  But this is not Ruth’s story.  The central message of Ruth is redemption, deliverance purely by grace.

Ruth didn’t go looking for God in the promised land, but God went to Moab looking for Ruth.  When He showed up, she embraced Him and clung to Him through ten years of childlessness, the death of her husband, and the loss of her home, and in that destitution she followed Him back to Israel.  Her faith was truly remarkable, but it was faith, not self-reliance or reward.  Faith is simply throwing the doors open for God to come in and do His thing.  And the more of God we let in, the bigger the difference He makes, though major renovations are not easy or quick or painless (ask my wife about this!).

Boaz is the “kinsman-redeemer,” a wonderful foreshadowing of the coming Messiah who would rescue the poor and broken.  Boaz was rich, powerful, and widely respected, but like his coming King, he saw a penniless migrant as wholly worthy of his heart.  She was not a charity-case for whom he had pity, a bride who would always feel inadequate and undeserving of his love, abashed by his greatness, self-deprecating and daunted, always working feverishly to avoid his disappointment.  Rather Boaz considered himself blessed and delighted to have her.  What did she bring to the marriage?  Only herself… which was the one thing Boaz wanted.  She filled his heart.

From Ruth’s line would finally come the promised Messiah, stepping across an infinite gap of greatness to be with the ones He loves.  We are the center of His thoughts, the passion of His heart.  He valued us at the price of Himself, His own life.  The bond between the most loving husband and wife, of Boaz and Ruth, is a pale image of His embrace of us, drawing us into His heart until we are one.  It is not too much to say that He has tied His eternal happiness to us… we can break his heart and make his heart sing.  But whatever we do or do not do, His love for us never weakens or wavers because it is anchored in His very nature.  We bring nothing to this relationship but ourselves, and that is what delights Him and fills His heart.

 

 

 

 

Posted June 16, 2013 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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The Spiritual Discipline of Idleness   2 comments

This is the unpublished conclusion to my post “The Spiritual Exercise of Shirking Duty”

I think God is telling me, “You’re going to keep spinning your wheels until you let off the gas.  You’re here to learn the art of idling.”

Idleness as a spiritual goal?  That sounds very wrong-headed.  I spent most of my life trying to maximize every minute, sleeping as little as possible so as to make the biggest spiritual profit for God.  Every activity, even entertainment, was scored on how useful it was.  If I read books, it must be for my growth.  If I took a vacation, it was at a monastery.  Every meal with friends was to “sharpen iron with iron.”  Pleasures without eternal benefits were wasteful and wrong, and slowly every simple joy was twisted into a duty.  I was driven by the fear that God valued me for what I did for him, and it was never enough.

atelaphobia

My beliefs have changed, but the shadow remains over those natural delights that would ordinarily bring me pleasure.  When I try to simply enjoy reading, writing, music, hiking, gardening, wood-working, and the like, this imperious gravity pulls me to turn each one into something productive, cutting off its wings and tethering it with a burden of obligation.  Since last winter my only sure escape has been solitaire, not because it is especially fun, but because it is especially profitless, and so I can’t use it for brownie points with God.  While shuffling cards, I’m doing nothing good for the world; I’m just killing time.  And as I’ve learned to trust God’s grace there in the middle of that uselessness, I have discovered pure grace, not “grace” in exchange for my good efforts.

DUTY: LOOKS GOOD, BUT TIES ME IN KNOTS

How can I rebuild my life around the joy of being who God created me to be instead of the slave-driven motive of duty? As long as I keep believing that God loves me more when I do more for him, and less when I do less,  I can never find rest in his grace.  To truly discover the riches of God’s full acceptance apart from my profitability, I may need to become more useless still in order to set my faith free from its false grounding in my own goodness.  “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

Posted June 15, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Blessed Are the Cheerful   17 comments

sad womanMost churches are uncomfortable with the melancholy.  This has been a source of pain and confusion for Kimberly, and a spiritual stumbling block.  The church’s unmitigated focus on an optimistic perspective (which it confuses with faith) seems dishonest and feels oppressive to her.  This came up a few days ago and I responded, “It’s really only the churches in this country which are so upbeat.  The American culture has won the church over.  It is not as though Christians started reading their Bibles and said, “Oh, look at this!  We are all supposed to be positive thinkers with permanent smiles.”  If an American had written the Beatitudes, they would start out, “Blessed are the poor rich in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn are cheerful: for they shall be comforted need no comfort.”

Sad-Girl-lYes, you can mourn in church… briefly, over something big, with repeated claims of  steadfast faith, but if you don’t feel better soon because of our sympathy, we take offense.  How quickly does God expect you to get over your grief?  The benefits from the beatitudes seem to be scheduled for the next life.  After all, when do the poor “inherit the earth” and the persecuted receive a great “reward in heaven”?  It appears the sorrowing find full and lasting consolation only at the resurrection.  Jesus does not see the melancholy as spiritually weak or faith-less, but as blessed.  Instead of a condition to avoid or get past, sadness is a door into spiritual blessing.  Perhaps instead of avoiding or trying to fix the mournful, we might learn something from them, something about what it means to love a broken world.

Posted May 2, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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A Thin Ribbon of Grace   6 comments

Delayed by confusion, Anne at last flung herself from her seat just as the ski lift lurched into its ascent.  The five foot drop stunned her, and so a kindly hand helped her into a small lodge to recover.  Unfortunately, the kerosene stove inside increased her nausea.  But as she lay there, a whiff of fresh, pine-scented air brushed her face.  It trickled in through the cracked windows just enough to keep her from smothering under the acrid fumes.  She called it “a thin ribbon of grace.”

Berly and I read this Lamott story weeks ago, but Sunday stumbled across her retelling it in a Youtube interview, and this time the phrase popped.  When I am lost and broken and sick to my soul, I want God to fling open the windows of grace, but what I get is barely enough to keep me coherent, like a drowning man who is chucked under his chin just enough to keep his nose above this moment’s wave and then dropped again… like a malnourished child fed a few crumbs above a starvation diet.  Survival grace.  For those of us wishing for life to end, this frayed ribbon of grace seems less like love and more like torture.  Why is God so tightfisted with His goodness as though He’s worried He’ll run short or we’ll fritter it away?  What present consolation can we suck from the ending “happily ever after” if life’s story is “miserable until death.”

But Anne’s phrase whispered across my thoughts, enticing.  Is it enough, this thin ribbon?  I want a bank full of grace to draw on for my needs, but I am only given enough for this moment… sometimes barely enough.  It’s true that I haven’t drowned yet, but every time the finger holding up my chin drops away, I’m sure the next wave will take me under.  After all, I’ve been left spluttering for air many times.  It’s a fact that I haven’t starved, but this is my last bowl of soup, and the cupboards are bare.  Living hand-to-mouth is so precarious, so uncertain, so constricting, whether the shortage is literally financial and physical or the deficit lies deeper still, a hole in the heart.

In the desert the Israelites were completely dependent on God, and in spite of dining on a daily miracle, hunger was always just one day off, for forty years running.  A thousand winters later, not much has changed for the children of God as they prove in their principal prayer: “give us this day our daily bread.”  What is this addiction God has for pocket change allowances?  Surely He doesn’t make us suffer needlessly.  If He is truly a loving God, he must think this arrangement is a real windfall for us.

But as Berly points out, many of God’s children are jobless and friendless, homeless and hungry; some die agonizing deaths.  We are not promised health or happiness or even sanity.  Exactly what does it mean to claim that His grace is sufficient if it is not even sufficient to keep us breathing?  From somewhere the thought drifted into my mind–His grace is sufficient for our hearts, the one thing that matters above all to us.  In spite of life’s miserable suffering, we cannot deny that our hearts have not only survived, but grown.  We are blossoming into the ones God created us to be.  We have faced into our fears and discovered new strength, challenged shame and found love.  We opened our hearts, and truth came in with insight, wisdom, and freedom.

But we are still tormented by depression.  Something seems very wrong with our chosen path when we end up here.  If we follow God as best we know how, should we not find peace, joy, rest, and fulfillment?  Isn’t that what grace looks like?  We want a life plan that works, that makes us feel good, accomplished, confident, whole, and if that’s the goal, our plan is clearly broken.  But we tried other popular strategies, and they gutted our souls.  Perhaps we’ve been measuring grace by the wrong scale.  If our personal growth is the better gauge, then God has been truly lavish towards us, and if it comes to us through pain, we will welcome it gratefully.  He sends a thin ribbon of consolation to keep our hearts from breaking, but his grace is not limited to this meager thread.  His grace towards us has proven to be a river, not a ribbon, even if we cannot feel it or understand it.

Posted May 1, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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