How to let grace be grace

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has been ringing in my ears throughout Lent. Sometimes as I’ve heard it, I’ve been able to lean in and let go and receive grace, other times not. As I spoke with the friend who helps me listen I had to confess that I felt like I still didn’t really have a clue how to let grace be grace.

She said this: “Maybe it’s just about where you look.

Yes. That’s it. Will I focus on my failures (real or feared), or will I focus on Jesus?

Why do I forget this?

The dying Israelites had to look at the snake on the pole to live (Num 21:8-9).

Peter had to look at Jesus to keep from sinking (Matt 14:28-31).

And my Grandpa told me when he was teaching me to drive, “Look where you want to go.” Look at the Way, not at the ditches. We have to look around enough to know where the ditches are, but then, to get where we want to go, we have to return our gaze to the road we’re wanting to travel.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses—[all of whom looked more at God and his promises than at their sins or their circumstances]—let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

For the overwhelming moments

It’s a busy stretch right now as I prepare to present my final master’s project in ten days’ time. Room booked? Check. Posters printed? Check. Paper done? Script finished? Slides prepared? I want this first public sharing of the book I’ve been working on for several years to be a blessing to those who attend.

In the midst of the busyness (which sometimes degenerates into anxiety), I’m sensing myself reminded, through an image and a phrase, how to live this time.

The phrase? “It’s not mine, it’s ours.” The book, the accompanying papers, the presentation aren’t mine, they’re ours—a love-gift that God and I have been offering to each other for years and are now preparing—together—to share with others. The responsibility is not mine to carry alone.

And the image? I’m flailing around in the ocean, grasping wildly at a life-ring, trying to pull myself up out of the water and stand on it. It flips over, dumping me unceremoniously back into the water and leaving me coughing and spluttering as it bobs to the surface again a few feet away. Jesus, walking on the water, reaches out his hand to me, inviting me to stop trying to stand on (or even cling to) the life ring and let him help me back into the boat instead.

The life-ring, I’m discovering, can be just about anything. My own intuition. A structure or protocol or tradition. Detailed planning. Friends who are helping me out. Anything that is good and helpful and sometimes even life-saving, but that isn’t meant to be the foundation for my security. Anything, in other words, that is not Jesus.

The kind of love that holds you

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference to a day or a relationship, that break the camel’s back or make you certain you are known and loved.

Last week it was a hazelnut—a missing hazelnut, to be precise, and then a found one—that taught my heart what it needed to know.

I’d been carrying it around in the left pocket of my coat for five or six years since I first read Julian of Norwich’s beautiful image of God holding in the palm of his hand, like a tiny hazelnut, all that is made. I love to slip my hand in my pocket as I walk and be reminded that I am part of God’s creation—always held, sustained in being because God made me and loves me and keeps me.

But one day last week when I slipped my hand in my pocket, my hazelnut wasn’t there. It was such a small thing but, like a missing tooth, I kept exploring the gap, feeling the emptiness.

At first I tried to brush away the sadness and assure myself it didn’t matter; it was such a small loss and God still holds me whether or not I have a hazelnut in my pocket to remind me. Then I tried to problem-solve; where might I have lost it? How could I replace it? (Where do you even buy nuts in their shells at this time of year?)

And then I felt a nudge: “Ask Me.”

“Oh. Right. Thank you. But really? I feel like a two-year old with a missing blanket. You really want me to ask you about that?”

“I love you, child.”

So I told him my sadness, and thanked him for being with me in it. I told him I knew it was a tiny thing, but I really liked that hazelnut, and I asked if he’d help me find or replace it.

Soon after, I sensed a nudge and went to look in the drawer of my bedside table (feeling, I must admit, a little like I was looking in the oven for my toothbrush!) But there, nestled among the pill bottles and blood pressure cuff, bookmarks and pens, as though waiting to be found, was a single hazelnut.

It wasn’t the hazelnut that brought tears to my eyes; it was the love of the God who holds it always in the palm of his hand. The grand love that made all that exists and sustains it in being is not a generic love but a very particular, tender love—the love of a parent who will search through the whole house at bedtime to find the missing blanket for the toddler because her small needs and loves and desires matter.

I’m glad I lost my hazelnut. My heart knows, now, so much more about the hand that holds me!

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.

Let Grace Be Grace: A Lenten Invitation

When I ask Jesus at the beginning of each Lent how he is inviting me to walk with him toward the cross, I’m often surprised by the answer he gives.

One year, the invitation was to focus on various aspects of being embodied. (“Isn’t Lent as a time to suppress our appetites and mortify our bodies, not celebrate them?” I’d wondered. “But isn’t the journey to the cross and through death where Jesus most fully experienced his humanity, and gave us back our own, joined to his, now host to God’s indwelling presence?” the answer had returned.)

Jesus’ Lenten invitations are always, in one way or another, about connecting my story to his story and freeing me to live the fuller, truer story of grace—which, of course, is precisely the point of Lent.

This year as Lent begins I find myself in a busy time when I’m being stretched in many ways, and the gentle invitation which overarches all the smaller daily invitations is simple and direct: Let grace be grace.

Sacrifice can be an expression of love, and discipline is essential for discipleship. But for this good girl, it’s easy without even knowing it to turn discipline into a place to hide from grace. Sometimes I don’t need another layer of discipline so much as I need to remember that it’s only a means, and that the end (which can, at times, be obscured by the means) is living in love. And so the call this year is to trust. To let grace be grace and love be love.

This year, if Lent is about self-denial, it’s about the denial of that part of me that wants to—and insists I can—earn love. (And by denial I don’t mean ignoring that part of me, but bringing it into Jesus’ presence where it slowly shrinks.)

If turning, then turning from those persistent voices that insist I need to fix myself (give up something, work harder, trust more deeply) to be loveable, and turning again and again to the Voice that says I have always been beloved and nothing I do or don’t do can change that.

If about repentance, then repentance for trying (even without realizing it) to earn this love that can only be received.

It is not to be a Lent of self-flagellation, but God-celebration, a Lent of the real, messy, honest me living loved and delighting in grace—the grace that takes my place on the cross and the same grace that meets me in the details of my life now and invites me to receive that grace, to rest in it and delight in it and let it be enough.

 

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It seems Jesus is giving the same invitation around the globe. After I had written this post, I read Sarah’s beautiful post which felt like another piece of God’s invitation to me, an echo making the invitation still deeper and more beautiful. You can read it here: Lent in Love.