The shocking generosity of Grace

Someone told me that he relies on his intellect and common sense to deal with his own issues. If I’m unhappy, he says, it’s because I’ve f-d up somewhere. So I just need to go back and work out where that was, and fix it.

Prayer, he says, is pointless. Don’t imagine God will listen to your prayers, he says. God has a credit and debit sheet for your life, he tells me. Unless you are in credit God’s not listening, he says.

So he doesn’t bother. Waste of time, he says.

All you people in the churches and the mosques praying you’re all hypocrites.

Then he cites with disgust the example of a man who turned to Christ and became a priest after a life of crime. This man is a hypocrite, he tells me. The father of one of his victims vomited when he heard about this man’s conversion, he adds.

If I believed God was keeping a balance sheet of my good and bad deeds, I might as well give up now. Watch daytime TV till my heart stops. Or party like I had no hope.

My friend seemed comfortable with the idea that his own actions had doomed him in God’s eyes. Given the tools for the job, ie, free will and the knowledge of right and wrong, he had only himself to blame and only himself to rely on to fix things. The idea that God would intervene to the extent of granting forgiveness was unthinkable, at best naïve and at worst presumptuous. As far as he was concerned, God offered no mercy, no forgiveness and no second chances.

I agree that we usually know what we should and shouldn’t do. But knowing is not always enough. That old Christian cliché of relationship not religion truly shifts our motivation. When I do the right thing it’s because of a relationship that has changed my nature and motivation. I want to honour the person of Jesus, not simply keep my account in the black.

This strange and awkward conversation showed me the power and the shock of grace. Grace – undeserved blessing – violates our sense of natural justice. It dishes out reward instead if punishment. After all, why should we get forgiveness for our mistakes? Why not be made to live as cautionary tales for the generations to come? But if God is our father, then that natural law flexes under the weight of this father’s love. This father who tells us himself that he will forgive the truly contrite, the one with the courage to face Him with the wrong they have done. And once we have been shown compassion, it naturally follows that we in turn show compassion to others. Grace leads to more grace.

But really, grace? Seriously? It’s illogical. It’s anomalous. Why should a perfect holy God tolerate let alone pardon sin in people who know right from wrong and choose wrong? It’s another question for that interview in heaven. But maybe it’s because without receiving we cannot give. And a lack of compassion is poisonous. In individuals. In families. In nations.

I want to live in the peace God gave me. So I receive God’s compassion in order to be more compassionate. It doesn’t always work. I sometimes forget, both to receive compassion and to extend it to others. Wallowing in failures/mistakes/sins has a certain payoff for a while, but then the air gets a bit stale. I am learning to receive the fact God loves me and move on instead of enthroning my issues as if they were more important.

I am not my mistakes. Nor my successes.

I am a child of God. Loved and forgiven.

 

Unity

We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.

It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time.  This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.

So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark.  All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.

After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.

I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.

I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party.  Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.

What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.

It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices.  My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.

 

 

Course correction

Sigh. The more things change…

Months ago I described my epiphany with a declaration of intent to go into full-time ministry. Life took on a new, excited urgency while I waited to see what God would do with my generous offer of myself. I applied for and got a job with a Christian organisation running outreach courses. It’s been a steep curve, both stretching and affirming. Naturally enough this has filled my vision and my head for the last six months.

Then my manager asked me what I was doing about pursuing my vocation.  I was surprised to find myself reacting negatively, trotting out the same old excuses, feeling the same tug of conflicting emotions. The peace I had experienced before had been superseded by the busyness of my new role, its possibilities and opportunities. This Christian life is supposed to be all about dying to self and living for Christ. It turns out my self is still very much alive and kicking. Hard.

A few sleepless nights and painful conversations later, I gave in, again. Told God that he can place me wherever he wants to, hoping for the peace of before. Instead I felt flat and foolish. Unimpressed now with my years of acrobatic twists and turns away from God’s embrace, keeping close enough to feel his warmth, but just beyond the range of his all-consuming fire. I was exhausted by the struggle to keep my head above the waters, to avoid full immersion.

My internal critic pounded me with condemnation but then God sent a mature Christian to remind me that God is neither surprised nor disappointed by the time I have taken. Every experience is useful, even the wandering, the wondering, the downright disobeying and the genuine questioning. He loves me the same whether I say yes or no. Grace, the gift of love, was given in Christ because God is love, not in response to any input from me. I am God’s child and his love for me is an unchanging fact of eternity. He still and always loves me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I may even find out that I enjoy this ministry lark. It may not be the thing that I must do to sacrifice my fulfilment to the demands of the almighty, but it may actually be the fulfilment I was made for.

My son announced recently that he now loves reading. It’s really fun, he tells me. Small thing you may say. But after 2 or more years of tears and tantrums about reading, it was quite a speech. Over and over we had all assured him it would get easier and he would come to enjoy it like the rest of his bookish family but he couldn’t see it. Now he’s got it, he gets it. It’s great.

I trust that I will too. I dare to believe that after some 8 years of refusal, God may share my feeling of delight that his child has finally caught on and is ready to engage in some learning she might actually enjoy.

Give peace a chance

Peace I leave with you, Jesus said to his disciples. My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14 v 27

I have got this rest thing all wrong. Been looking in the wrong direction. I have imagined and fantasised rest as an absence of doing, a break from activity. A stretch of time outside normal life, with stress receptors on pause. Hard-won respite from reality.

But without peace there can be no rest. When I finally reach that plateau called rest I am so exhausted from the climb and so tense from the preparation that I cannot actually rest. And resent those around me who can. Forced rest, like forced love, is empty and superficial. A pretty husk. Ultimately pointless. And tiring.

This year has started fuller than last, with a new job adding to the usual stuff that comes with a houseful of children and a micro(scopic) business. I’m working very hard, but despite a well-developed vocabulary for stress and anxiety, I’ve not much use for it these days because, in truth, I’m neither stressed nor anxious. No more than momentarily. Home life is shape-shifting as the children become more independent, more able, sometimes even willing. We’re all growing.

The anxiety of whether I’m good enough, whatever that actually means, is losing its relevance. I wonder now why I wasted so much time on it. I think I now believe that I am able and that such a belief is both appropriate and healthy. Talking to my husband a few weeks ago about work challenges up ahead, I heard myself say that I was going to learn a huge amount over the next few months. There was a pause while we both tried to recognise the speaker. This was new, for me to see opportunities to grow instead of mountains to climb. To be still before the unknown with openness and expectation, not clenched with fear and foreboding. It was like new language had been downloaded into my mind without my having to learn it. A strange tongue.

This didn’t happen overnight. To quote my favourite Bible teacher, Joyce Meyer, there’s no such thing as a drive-through breakthrough.

They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40 v 31

And I have been waiting. Expectantly. Like waiting for the man to come to install the heating system or unblock the pipes, I have been clearing my stuff out of the way so that God can get to work. He has heard my often tearful, snotty prayers to please help me stop going around in circles of self pity and introspection, blind to opportunities, blessings and gifts. He has reminded me of the power of worship to refocus and refuel. He’s given me some new practical strategies, too. Instead of staring at the problem until I’m paralysed, I step away for a while. And I have been asking God for help with specifics – that phone call, or phrasing that tricky email, that child kicking off. I get perspective by asking myself where this problem sits in the hierachy of The Worst That Could Happen. Death? Injury? The Wrong Envelope on Oscars Night?

I fall into bed exhausted and sleep deeply, rising earlier than I would like with a whole stack of tasks for the day ahead. But I don’t wake with a knot in my stomach these days, genuinely grateful for each day. The routine stuff of home that used to fill my time and take all day now gets done in a flash or not at all. So much more to do and so much more getting done.

Yes I’m boasting about God because what he is doing in me is worth boasting about.

He has poured peace into the place where anxiety used to smash me up like the blades of a blender. This peace grounds me instead of grinding me,  reminding me who I am. I use it to sift the thoughts that come. I consciously and regularly remember who God is and how he feels about me by reading and thinking about what his word says. And in those foetal moments when I run out of words and ideas – yes those still happen – God’s peace wraps itself around me like a blanket.

Perhaps all the time I wanted rest I really needed peace. The gift direct from Christ himself. I think of how Jesus breathed into the disciples just as God breathed into Adam. It was like Jesus was conferring a new kind of life on his followers. My God-breathed peace is becoming my default, replacing the darkness and negativity I lived with so long. In God’s peace I have space, room to manoeuvre, the choice to respond rather than react. Strength. Energy. Even courage. And in the midst of everything, rest.

Losing my religion

It’s finally happened. After months of mental paralysis I have faced the fact that much of my adult life has rested on a vain, empty fantasy. I am not, actually, in charge.

I am a different person to the one who stood watching flames lick the side of the house just over seven months ago. That person trusted God, but only as far as was sensible. That person was quietly desperate for a deeper connection with God but also scared of what that might mean. That person was also very concerned with what others thought. My Christian faith was very much focused on me. How I was performing. Or not. What I was getting wrong and what right. What boxes I could tick and feel like I was okay. I was obsessed with my image, constantly adjusting things to present my best side, so to speak. Hey, look at me worshipping. Does my faith look big in this?

In this year of house-hopping, God has helped me manage my end of things, keep my sense of humour and a reasonable equilibrium. No small thing. But as well as allowing me and the family to be pushed out of the house he’s also pushed me into more overtly spiritual territory. I have had to lean in, take refuge, really truly rely on this God I have claimed to trust since I was 16 years old.

I suppose the subconscious, or as I like to call her, my spirit, knows stuff before my mind catches up. She floats stuff to the surface that in my arrogance I think is the product of my imagination. Like the title of this blog. Relocation2011. I named it for the year we left England for Tasmania, an apt title for someone who even before that momentous move has uprooted a good few times.

We lived in three houses before we found a house to buy. And then came the fire. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that God was perhaps trying to tell us something, not by setting our house on fire (all credit to the six-year old for that) but by keeping us on the move, not letting us settle anywhere for long, showing us how much physical if not emotional baggage we accumulate whenever we stay still for too long. (The end of that particular road is almost, almost in sight. Last week I got to pick out paint colours. Yay!)

In reflecting on what the message might be, other than have a garage sale every six months, I have been drawn back to an invitation I received a couple of years before we left England. This was a call to full-time ministry. Like any reasonable person I ran like the wind of course, with many plausible objections, okay, excuses. Not unlike Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Jonah got a call to go to Nineveh and ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t run down here to the end of the world but when the door opened for us to come to Tasmania it seemed like a good opportunity to do my own version of a good but disobedient thing. I ignored what God was saying and decided that I would distract Him by focusing on being the good Christian wife and mother with a bit of extra stuff in Church at the weekends.

In the last few months I have had little reminders of this invitation to serve God full-time. To commit everything to God. And instead of finding it terrifying, I find I am now ready to say yes. I don’t know what this will look like yet. And annoyingly, the only one around me that is surprised about this is me.

Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks and to all who open the door he will come in and eat with them. I know he’s here in my life. I have only recently realised that I have not allowed myself to be at home with him, just hovering like an anxious host, tidying up around him and leaving the room from time to time. In his last recorded prayer in John 17 he talks about this strange intimacy between himself and God. I in You and You in me, He says. I have accepted Him in me, but not myself in Him. I have preferred to hold myself aloof from Him, to confect my own life which is neither in the world nor in Him but straddled somewhere across the two. I did it my way, as ole blue eyes used to say, and found my way uncomfortable, awkward and exhausting.

So I’m relocating.

Puzzle. Part 3

So after two fantastic, chilled-out weeks, I finally came to the end of the big cat puzzle. I put the last piece in the box next to the leopard’s ear and sighed. Partly in satisfaction and partly in regret. Firstly, because it was over. Like all good experiences, they have to end. Secondly because after the last piece went in, there was still a hole in the puzzle. It may have been the 5 year old’s fault, or the dog’s, or mine, but 999 pieces do not complete a 1000-piece puzzle. Sigh.

As my eyes travelled over the puzzle, they kept coming to rest on that tiny spot where the tablecloth showed through.

I’m finding that in life, as in puzzles, you can have plenty, but what gets your attention is that-one-thing-that-will-make-it-all-complete. Where your fulfilment will be. It’s really obvious in children, who can forget about everything they got for Christmas or birthday and focus on the one thing they hoped for but didn’t receive. Or the one toy that got broken. Or the one party they’ve had to miss this year. And we adults are often not much better. We tend to over-inflate what wasn’t and forget what was. What we don’t have, rather than what we do. We get our long-desired thing and after a frighteningly short time it fades into the picture of our lives as if it’s always been there.

I finally got a fantastic stove about two months ago, after years of (sometimes) patient, (mostly) quiet waiting. It looked new and shiny and gorgeous and out of place in our kitchen, which is none of the above. Eight or so short weeks on it is becoming part of the new normal. I can barely remember what the old one was like any more. And yet I remember the feeling of longing for it.

No sooner do you plug one gap then another one opens up. I suspect that’s what all marketing taps into, leading our eyes to the one-more-thing we need to buy or study or do to complete our ideal pictures. Recently I had to prepare a sermon about the cross. Possibly the worst marketing tool ever. As one atheist friend explained, a much harder symbol to deal with than the blissed-out fat man. What you need is for someone to be executed on your behalf! Gosh, of course. Where do I sign?

And what has this to do with puzzles? Well, I couldn’t not work the puzzle into my sermon, given that it had taken over my life over the previous two weeks. Here’s how.

The cross is the bit that looks like it has no place, like it isn’t related to anything we might like to think about ourselves or God, and yet, without it, my Christian faith is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

The God I believe in connected with us through Jesus, who, in some way I won’t even try to explain even if I understood it, is both God and man. Divine and human. In his humanity he taught us a lot about ourselves, not all of it comfortable. He upset the religious elites and confounded the political powers. He didn’t rouse the oppressed Jews into an insurgency, but told them stories about something called the Kingdom of God and healed them and did miracles and spoke about forgiveness. Then he was betrayed by one of his followers and let himself be executed by the Romans. The End. No messiah, no king, no new leader of Israel. Just another deluded failure.

But within the week, his followers are out claiming that he is in fact alive. They do healings and miracles and teach as he did, with his power and with his authority. The cross now looks less like an end and more like a beginning. It is said that on the cross Jesus took on the punishment for all the world’s evil. So when I read or hear about the violence mankind does to itself, I look at the cross and know that God hates it too and does not leave it unpunished. When I feel bad about my behaviour or my lack of integrity, I look at the cross and see the lengths God went to to show me his forgiveness.

For me at least, the cross, this sobering execution symbol, is proof of my loving and just God. And when I lock onto that, I connect with God. And I am complete. Even if it’s not always visible. ( Especially to my family this last week. Er, sorry guys…)

Puzzle. Part 2

I’ve noticed that it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the patterns and shades in this puzzle each time I come back to it after a pause for something unimportant, like food or sleep. I need time to tune in again, slow my thoughts down. No wonder they use these things in therapeutic settings. My mother was a psychiatric nurse and I remember doing jigsaw puzzles on the ward with the patients. I was only young then, maybe six or seven, but I remember the sense of calm around the low tables where the puzzles were laid out.

For me it was a mysterious place where the grownups sometimes said strange things or would walk off suddenly or start singing or dancing. The ward was busy, with the occasional alarming outburst from behind a curtain or a bed somewhere. Conversation was scant, it was too disjointed for me to follow, so I remember I didn’t say very much. The patients and I came together around the puzzle, scenes with horses or rose-covered cottages or ships in full sail.

At that age, and in that place, seventies South London, I was used to seeing the brewery dray horses that still pulled the beer wagons around to the pubs, but the rest, rose-covered cottages and ships in sail, was the stuff of stories and a world I did not know. I loved working on these huge puzzles, just letting my mind wander to the places and the lives that slowly materialised out of all the disparate pieces.

The satisfaction I got as a child from fitting the pieces has not gone with the passage of years, the bearing of children or any of the other things that happen over the course of growing up. It is perhaps one of the deepest pleasures, understanding where, how and why things fit together.

Fast-forward exty years to my big cat puzzle. I find the piece of the right shade, pattern and shape for the bit of the picture I’m working on. It doesn’t fit. So I try to force it in. It’s slightly too wide or too high. The pattern is close to the pieces around it but not quite the same. I put it aside in frustration. It can’t fit anywhere else. Maybe it’s in the wrong puzzle. Can’t trust these manufacturers any more. After all, imagine how many they must produce. It must happen, right. Many pieces later, the ‘wrong piece’ fits in elsewhere and another unlikely piece slots into that earlier space. I stare at it. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. It looked like it didn’t belong and had nothing to do with the rest, but it fits. And now that it’s in place, in that way of jigsaw pieces, it’s disappeared. It’s become part of the whole. Without the whole picture that one piece is meaningless. Without that one piece the picture is incomplete.

So here’s today’s insight from the world of puzzles. We all fit.

I know, you don’t look/sound/think like anyone else. You like different music, films, styles of clothes. Or you were born to a family of musicians but you’re tone deaf. You are the curvy one in a tribe of wands. Or you would rather eat your own arm than go swimming and your Dad’s a swim instructor. You’re short not tall. Or practical not academic. Whatever it is, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Not here by accident but design. And even if you appear to look, sound and think like everyone else, there’ll be at least one difference that makes you you and no-one else. If the makers of jigsaw puzzles can turn the sky into hundreds of individually shaped and shaded pieces, how much more could the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, closely documented and yet-to-be discovered, make you just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y different from everyone else around you?

You do fit. You do belong. You may find your place easily, it may be clear. Or you may have to wait awhile, until the support of other pieces, people, are in place. But be assured. Be encouraged. You do fit.

Psalm 139 v 13 – 16

For you created my inmost being;

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

When I was made in the secret place,

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

Your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me

Were written in your book

Before one of them came to be.