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What the Heck is Grace?

Repentance is now considered a negative word. It implies sin, guilt and shame to the modern mind. Yet, the truth of the biblical quote, “All fall short of the glory of God” (which is perfect love) is pretty obvious.

The problem seems to me that somewhere along the way, we decided that seven was old enough to recognize right from wrong and twenty-one was old enough to take responsibility for our choices.  End of story.  The reality that we not only can grow in our understanding of and capability to love ( of morality), but were designed to do this at least to the day we die, got lost in the shuffle between Adam and Eve and their apple of damnation and Jesus Christ and the cross of salvation.

What if we use the word “unfinished” to describe our falling short?  What if we use the word “growth” for the change implied by the word “repentance.”  And then recognize that grace is simply “unconditional love ” in many different guises. And that is the fertilizer, the good soil, that enables growth and change.

Important note:  Love does not protect us from the pain of natural consequences from our imperfect human choices.  But love/grace stays with us through the whole learning process and has the power to free us to change when we recognize our need for it.

What percentage of the world’s population experiences perfect love from birth to seven?  More, probably, than between seven and twenty-one. But where in the world do children experience only that kind of love?  In an imperfect world of disease, hunger, greed, war, and TV is it even possible to protect children from knowledge of the fear, pain, and hunger in the world?

Even in a loving family, in affluent circumstances, traumas can still happen at critical stages of a child’s development.  I knew a family who had several children and when the youngest  was a toddler, the mother stayed with the oldest who had to be in the hospital for a week. After they returned, the youngest would have a panic attack if the mother even went out the front door and could no longer go to sleep except in bed with the parents.  Up until a certain age, a child experiences “out of sight” as “gone forever.”   By school age, the child seemed to outgrow the fears, but years later, in retrospect, the mother recognized that a profound fear of abandonment has been a strong influence even into adulthood.

We probably all experience the crippling effects of forgotten, even innocently caused traumas, unaware of how they influence our responses and choices in adulthood.  The key to freedom is recognizing them, feeling sorrow for how they have wounded us and caused us to misuse others, and then by taking responsibility for seeking healing.  Recognition is the beginning of the process.  Sometimes awareness alone can free us to break a pattern of response.  Other times, it takes time and we can only replace the destructive response with a less harmful one, during the process.

We are terribly vulnerable human beings in a scary and confusing world in a humongous unknown universe.  Both, addictions to pleasures and to behaviors that give us the delusion that we are in control, dull the pain of awareness of our human vulnerability.   I personally am not into housekeeping.  Dust reappears the next day; no feeling of control there.  But sorting and organizing lasts a lot longer and is much more satisfying. But sorry you will be, if you come along and disturb my order.  And when dealing with painful realities in the middle of the night, but too tired to organize anything, I’ve been known to stand at the kitchen counter and eat half of a peach pie.  These are not terribly destructive painkillers, unless I use them to indefinitely avoid looking at what is the  root of my particular pain at that time.

I’ve never known anyone that thought this life is heaven.  Though there have been times I thought it might be hell.  I am definitely no longer a Pollyanna, who saw only the good, because I felt too fragile to deal with the pain of life.  Nor am I my midlife self that became a cynic, who expected and tried to prepare for the worst.  With grace, I’ve become able to see both in each day; to experience the deep sorrow of loss and the joy of beauty all around me at almost anytime.

When we believe we are loved at our worst and still unfinished at our best,  most days we are able to try to be open to how our lives are challenging us to grow. Sometimes, like Peter Pan, my theme song is “I Won’t Grow Up!”  But then I remember that life does not give up challenging us, which means I’m just dragging out the process.

We are all a work in progress.  Awareness is the key to progress. And that comes in different ways: discomfort within,  overloaded responses to people and events, even just something we seem to suddenly read or hear all around us.  We will be able to perceive the cues in different ways through different stages of our own life.   When I got brave enough to make the leap from agnosticism to faith in grace, I could suddenly make sense of the scripture in spite of all its anomalies.  But I met many life long Christians that admitted sadly that they did not really find meaning there.  Then later in life, they suddenly found great joy in it.  I had loved the Scripture from my early thirties, but during my fifties and sixties it simply became like reading the back of cereal boxes.  We all go through stages, but they differ in timing because of our various personalities. So, don’t assume because you have never enjoyed or understood something, that you never will.  Like it or not, we grow and change with both losses and gains during the process.

All of this can be seen as psychological or spiritual or both.  Mostly, it’s just the way life is, but how we perceive it can make a huge difference in becoming the people in process that we were created to be.

 

 

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God is in the Reality of the Present Moment

I’m studying the book of Ecclesiastes in a Scripture Class at my church. We are using a book by my favorite Rabbi, Rami Shapiro. He boils Ecclesiastes down to accepting the reality of the present moment without judging it as good/bad, happy/sad, bright/dark. There’s none of this gritting of teeth and bearing things in hope for a reward of heaven or a star in our crown. It’s about accepting everything in this moment: myself, others, pain, joy, beauty, ugliness and by accepting the now…whole, we experience the grace, the transcendent in it.
God is in the reality of the present moment. It is all we actually have. But it is everything.

Birthday Reflections: 77 is a Very Good Number or Killing A** Holes Would Make Jesus Cry

Over all it’s been a reasonably productive, though challenging year. The challenge of moving has been a bit of a bummer, but the advantage of it being such a drawn out, tiring process is it has helped us become eager to get moved, instead of just needing to move.

Also, my faith has been stretched by the process and that’s a good thing. I realized recently that what I used to think were tests of faith (which I usually failed!) are instead a stretching of our faith as part of the journey. Hopefully, each time we are stretched, we make it a little longer before we have to pray, “I do believe. Help thee my unbelief.”

I hit a couple of areas where I realized that I would have to change or I was going to totally fail in some of the most important areas of my life. And then I discovered that accepting that I need to change is the hard part, once I want to change, the grace comes.

Realized also, that out of fear of alienating people I love, I often downplay how important Jesus is in my life. So much bad stuff has been done in his name and his role warped into a fear of hell thing rather than a love that frees us, that it is hard to find words that aren’t a turn off to describe what an amazing human being he is, how powerful his resurrection can be in our own lives, and that he is literally still here for us.

One of my grandchildren was laughingly telling me about a teen girl who got into a loud argument with someone at school and shouted, “You better be glad that I love Jesus, cause I’d wipe the floor with you if I didn’t.”

It was a funny coincidence her telling me that, because on the drive to spend the day with her I had been thinking that if I hadn’t experienced knowing Jesus and his love, I doubt if I would have made it to fifty, never-the-less seventy-seven. And as weak, difficult, and selfish as I still often am, I would be a whole lot worse.

One of my favorite things I’ve read on facebook lately was a woman’s response to a friend telling about her child being made fun of at preschool because he thought the other children were cruel to cut up worms. Her response was: “Tell him that there are a lot of A** Holes in the world. And the best thing to do is ignore them, because killing them is illegal and also it would make Jesus cry.”

And I think it would. And I am glad of that, because let’s face it, there’s some A** Hole in all of us.

At Home in My Skin at Last

Must be getting really old, I’ve been so reflective lately. I guess seventy-six qualifies. Off and on through a lot of my life, I have not been very comfortable being me, sometimes downright miserable about being me. Realized tonight, even though I haven’t set the world on fire, I haven’t burned it down either. And though there have been hard times because of circumstances, there have been more good times than bad. I’ve learned a lot about human being.  And quite a bit about God.  And some really encouraging stuff about God and human being.  And even though I’ve gone through some really dark inner times, I have had lots of fun, lots of pleasure, lots of love both given and received, quite a few times of sheer mind blowing joy, and in my sixties and seventies, probably more laughter than in the first 60 years of my life. Even if I could magically go back and swap circumstances, or even get to be somebody else, I don’t think I would want to. I guess even though I don’t have too many illusions about myself anymore, I’ve just gotten used to being me, kind of like a pair of old house slippers, frayed around the edges, but too comfy to throw away. Amazing grace!
(Small print addendum: Wouldn’t mind some memory repair however.)

Gifts of Age (Part Seven): Aging Like Fine Wine by Dancing in Our Hearts

Dance of Youth

New bottles seldom hold particularly fine wine. Likewise, the gifts of age don’t come in teenaged bodies. On the outside I’m a short, plump, white-haired old lady on a walker. But inside me still live all my younger selves. And the imp inside has gotten braver with the passage of time, so I challenge other little old ladies on walkers to races and to consider themselves armed and dangerous. I plan to get tee shirts that say, “Bare Toes Beware” and “I Can Do Anything You Can Do, Just a Whole Lot Slower.”
Being in my mid-seventies, not only means that I’ve run out of a future full of possibilities, it also means that I’ve actually seen the consequences of some of my major screw-ups in my younger years. And part of my spiritual journey has involved developing enough self-awareness to recognize a self-serving element even in the good things that I do. Parting with delusions is a painful process, but like most difficult things in life, it has an up-side. It eventually makes it easier to live lightly, unburdened by carrying pockets full of stones to throw at others. All those cracks in my façade make that quite hazardous.
Letting go of physical agility and mental acuity as major parts of our self-image is one of the most frightening challenges of this part of the spiritual journey. When I was young and lithe, one of my few natural talents was ballet. In fact, I often expressed my emotions through dance. Once, I danced in sheer joy at the awesomeness of God, while reading The Well Springs of Life by Isaac Asimov. He used several diverse sciences, that study both the macrocosms and the microcosms of the universe, to trace the incredibly orderly and unifying processes of evolution in all aspects of creation. Even such a small glimpse of the brilliance and glory of God was almost blinding. Verbal praise was simply not enough. This cried for praise with my whole self. I put the book down and danced to express my overflowing  joy.
I can no longer physically dance, nor do I have enough mental energy or short term memory to explore complex scientific descriptions of the glory of God in His creation. But age brings simple moments of grace that lift my heart and mind to dance on butterfly wings.
A grandchild whose journey through autism began with learning a few simple signs to ask for basic needs, now keeps me awake chatting past our bedtime. As I pray for energy to stay awake, I dance with delight in my heart at having this once unimaginable experience.
In another part of my series, Gifts of Age, I describe the timely sight of a cow-pile covered in golden Monarch Butterflies just as I was telling God that I was up to my neck in manure down here and asking where the heck He was in all this.  What a perfect symbol of grace.  Butterflies, the classic symbol of transformation, happen to need certain chemicals found in manure.  Problems that go beyond our human ability to solve can open us to God and the grace to grow.

And, believe me, old age is full of that kind of fertilizer.

Dwindling energies and a sense of time passing at warp speed force me to re-evaluate my priorities. Where do I want to focus my limited resources? On image? On possessions? On my aches and limits? On pleasure as a temporary distraction? On a past that I cannot change? On a future that may never come?  It seems more important now, to focus on recognizing the footprints of God in my daily life, on celebrating God’s presence in the small and ordinary, even in the heartbreak, and to share that awareness however I can.

No matter what our age is; today is the only day we actually have.  We can seize it, rejoice in it, and  dance in our hearts.