Let grace be grace: Learning to see

I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?

Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)

But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”

And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.

Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.

Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.

I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”

Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.

“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”

Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.

When “good girl” isn’t enough

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I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.

This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.

BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.

AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.

It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.

Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”

She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.

Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.

But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.

And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.

He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”

The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.

Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.

She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.

And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.

He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.

He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.

In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.

The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

Freely God’s

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Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?

It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.

When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.

But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.

Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).

I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.

I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?

It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.

What to do with mixed motives

dsc_0061I can’t help but wonder: Why, after Peter had gotten over the shock of seeing Jesus walking towards them on the water, did he ask to join him in that adventure?

What was behind Peter’s request, impetuous Peter who later cut off the ear of the soldier in the garden, who resisted Jesus washing his feet and then wanted his whole self washed, who, the first time he saw Jesus after he had denied that he knew him, when he happened to be in a boat and saw Jesus on the shore, put his heavier clothes back on and jumped into the water, running to Jesus.

What motivated his request in the middle of this dark, stormy night, to come to Jesus on the water? Could he just not wait the few more seconds to be close to Jesus? Or was it bravado? A need to feel significant or prove himself special or worthy of love and respect? A sense of adventure? A desire to be with Jesus and do as he did? Or some mix of all of these in various unidentified proportions?

The wondering came as I was puzzling over something in my own story. How do I hold together the sense that God called me to Afghanistan and that I went out of love for him with the awareness (that I didn’t see at the time) that I was probably also trying to prove myself loveable or worthy or special or important or somehow find my place in the world?

It seems like such grace and generosity from our creative and very adventuresome Master that Jesus didn’t try to sort through all the layers of motivation, of brokenness mixed with love and desire. It was enough that somewhere in the mix was Peter’s desire to be with Jesus, and Jesus responded to that. Peter asked Jesus to call him to come, and Jesus said, “Of course. Come. Always.”

It feels like an invitation to me too, not to bother trying to dissect all the layers of my motivation, just to ask Jesus for what I want—him to call me close—and trust him to see and honor the truest level of my desire.

Jesus knows that being close to him is exactly what is needed to take care of those other bits in the mix.

Accepted!

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“God came as a baby!” I overhear one mom saying to a new mom looking a little worn out with the care of her totally helpless newborn who needs to be changed and fed and cuddled night and day. A friend writes it in a newsletter, “He came not as a triumphant King, but a tiny, vulnerable baby, so that we would see He knows our weakness and our struggles.” Another friend explores the wonder of it on her blog: God needy?!

I’m hearing the familiar truth this year against the backdrop of a question I recently read, a question God seems to be asking me, “I can accept you as you are—but can you?”

I hear it in a multitude of versions:

I can accept you as you are—with your tendency to withdraw when you feel like you’re failing—but can you?

I can accept you as you are—with your fear and your questions—but can you?

I can accept you as you are—even with your struggle to accept your own limited, sinful self and rest in My love. Can you?

At first a little voice in my head asks if it’s really God I’m hearing. It sounds like the gentle, welcoming voice of the God I’ve come to love, but what about those verses about being perfect? Does God really accept me as I am, or does he want to change me? Slowly I’m realizing that acceptance and change are not only not mutually exclusive but necessarily intertwined. It is only in finding myself accepted as I am that I can change in ways that are deeper than the masks I wear. When I accept that I’m accepted, I begin to relax. My defenses come down and I open to love, and that love reshapes me from the inside so that I become loving too.

Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as he is, inviting himself over for the meal which makes public Jesus’ acceptance of him, and that love turns Zacchaeus’ grabbing, hoarding nature into one which gives and loves and makes right.

Jesus accepts Peter as he is, a tempestuous follower who in one instant is brazenly slicing off an attacker’s ear to defend his Lord and in the next denying he ever knew him. And through Jesus’ acceptance as he looks at Peter rather than looking away after Peter speaks those words of denial, through Jesus’ acceptance as he gives Peter a three-fold chance to reaffirm his love coupled with Jesus’ own threefold affirmation of acceptance, Peter is transformed into a rock who will not again deny his Lord even when it costs him his life.

“I can accept you as you are”—isn’t that the point of Peter’s vision of the unclean animals . . . and of the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles . . . and of the whole book of Galatians—that we don’t have to follow the law or cut off parts of ourselves or otherwise make ourselves “perfect” in order to be accepted? That, in fact, we are missing the whole point of the gospel if we insist on trying to make this sort of perfection a prerequisite for acceptance? Only in Galatians is the severest possible curse—“let them be eternally condemned”—leveled, (twice!), and it is against those who preach that we can’t trust this love, that we are not accepted unless we first shape up.

I look back again to the baby—God accepting us so fully as to become one of us, taking on our flesh with its limitations and eccentricities, and continuing to wear it—complete with scars—into eternity.

This is the point of the cross, too—not judgment (we would then be on that cross), but an acceptance deep enough that Jesus hangs there in our place, arms open in embrace.

The God who became needy, accepting us in our neediness, became sin, accepting us in the worst of our offenses.

The table-top tree stands in the corner, dressed with tiny red and gold crosses, reminding me that the incarnation which we celebrate speaks the deepest of acceptance. The manger scene sits underneath, and a dove with the word “Peace” perches near the tree’s top, inviting me to respond, to surrender to the peace that comes with knowing myself accepted as I am.