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.

 

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.

Weather

In England, where I grew up, people don’t really talk about the weather despite the stereotype. In Tasmania, where I now live, we sometimes have four seasons in one hour. You’ll often see combinations like board shorts and puffer jackets and flip-flops and beanies all on the same person, all appropriate on the one day. Locals walk through showers, whether in suits or sandals, simply ignoring the rain.

Weather affects my moods and my inclinations, my energy levels and my enthusiasm. In this place, apart from anything else, I am learning to keep going whatever the weather. To enjoy the sun when it comes out but not too much (even dark skin is no match for a hole in the ozone), wrap up against a sudden Antartic snap, enjoy a light misting , or more, of rain and then get blown up the street by the wind.

And then there’s my personal weather. The competing pressures and dynamics of the aspirations and duties and people that surround and affect me. Every once in a while I find that these coalesce into a storm that throws me around and makes me feel anxious and inadequate. I worry about getting hurt. About drowning.

Then I remember the story of Jesus in the storm. It’s in Luke 8 v 22- 25.

Jesus and the disciples have set out in a boat on a calm lake, when a squall comes up and threatens to swamp the boat. The disciples are terrified. Jesus is asleep. They wake him up and he commands the wind and the waves to subside. Which they do. He asks them ‘where is your faith?’ They are amazed, seeing how powerful he is over an element that they, as fishermen, know pretty well and have a healthy fear of.

You know what’s coming. But it’s easy to ignore or forget. That same Jesus, the one in the book, the one from Sunday school, is in my boat, my life, with me. Resting. Undisturbed. Unmoved by the threats and roar of the waves, he lives his life with me. I need to be like him, unmoved, dead to the threat of these pressures. They are in fact the medium by which I move, the element through which my boat manoeuvres. I can use some winds but not all, ride some waves and avoid others. Better still, I can say to the seas and the winds, Be still. Because I can speak with the authority of Christ, who lives in me.

17 years at N/A.

This may just be it, you know. My turning point. The bit in my personal movie where I suffer a blow that motivates me to face down my personal demons. One of those is a tendency to wallow in perceived failure. It encourages me to hide my pain from others, and then lashes me with it when I’m alone. So let me speak the truth and shame the devil, however small and slight this event may appear in the grand scheme of things.

Last Saturday night my husband showed me a notification from a networking site inviting him to congratulate me on ‘17 years at N/A’. I laughed with him and a friend at the time but inside I was curling up, mortified. I realised I had never completed my profile properly, planning to return to it ‘later’, that magical time beyond the horizon. And now the whole world, okay, the handful of contacts in my network, know I have been at N/A for the last 17 years, whatever that means. It got to me because for most of those years I have been in that other place beyond the so-called real world, known as full-time parenting, where strange creatures live in lands strewn with all manner of quests, trials and adventures. Some parents, like me, are fully immersed in this other world and emerge only occasionally to engage with this dimension (which I’ll call working-world, for the sake of simplicity if not accuracy, for work is abundant in that other world too). As my children grow more independent, I am beginning to travel between dimensions more often, but this computer-generated reminder that there was no category for me in working-world made me feel like someone had pulled my skirt up in the playground and then run away.

I heard the usual song from my internal bully about being a failure and having no trophies to show the good folks of working-world with the addition of a new verse about this now being public and how embarrassing and everyone’s laughing at me now… (think Morrissey). I cried along to that later, thinking of my amazing accomplished peers and how poorly I compared. I hadn’t heard the song of failure for a while, though like anything you learn well enough, you never forget the words. It felt like coming home, because this is where I lived for years even before having children. Before I was even old enough to have a chance to try, let alone fail at anything. That thought alone sat me up in the dark.

In the movies this would be the moment of searing revelation just before the montage showing repetitions of sweaty workouts or study or physio or pirouettes as the main character transforms from zero to hero. This song of negativity took me backwards. It reminded me of the past. It didn’t relate to my life now. This was an epiphany because I realised I’ve already been doing this sweaty working out/study/physio thing – though no pirouettes, if I’m honest – in the strange land I mentioned earlier, learning all manner of resilience, resourcefulness and stamina as I facilitate childhood in glorious technicolour and four times over. Who knows what use I’ll put it to, or what I’ll end up doing in working-world, but I know that with God’s help I’m more than equal to it.

For I know the plans I have for you, Says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29 v 11

Time for a new song. And a profile update. 😉