Love and Grace, Joy and Laughter

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“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine .  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”-John 15:4

Love and Grace, Joy and Laughter.  These are simple words to bandy about during the Christmas season. We could all use a little more love and grace,  and joy and laughter.

My husband and I have had a lovely time during our Christmas vacation.  We have recharged our batteries, and I have used some of that time for some introspection.  I am not proud of where my thoughts  lead me sometimes.  I am far too independent for my own good. I profess to let God be in control of my life, yet I struggle with relinquishing control to Him at the same time.

When I read the Old Testament of the Bible, I shake my head. The lying and cheating and war and sex and dysfunction that went on is difficult to comprehend. It’s just as twisted as our society is today, I suppose.  Sometimes I catch myself wondering how I can relinquish control to a God who lets all that stuff happen. Other times I am reminded that God loves us. He gives us gifts to help each other, despite our pride and lying and cheating and dysfunction. In our modern world, when Christians are scoffed at for various reasons, I have hope that my faith in Him,  and in those He has placed in my life, is enough for each new day.

Often, I find  it is difficult for me to break through and keep up with my blogging and writing as often as I want to.  Writing is a charge, and a gift that I take seriously.  If I write something and put it out there, I want it to be worthy of my readers’ time.  I do not want to fill space on my blog just for the sake of posting something on a regular basis.  That being said, I wish I had the inspiration or the energy to write on a regular basis. Life gets in the way, and I do as well.

Sometimes I think very highly of myself and when I do, I find I will fail every time.  I think this happened to Peter when he stepped off a boat to walk on the water’s surface. Jesus called him by name and said, “Peter, come out of the boat and walk towards me.” Peter listened to this strange request and actually walked out of the boat and towards Jesus on top of the water. After a little while, he began to sink, so Jesus reached out, grabbed him by his hand and lifted him up; he kept him from sinking into the sea and drowning.  ( Matthew 14:22-23)

I have wondered why Peter began to sink before reaching Jesus.  I am not a Biblical theologian and I have not formally studied the Bible, but I think perhaps Peter was like, “WOW!  Look at ME! I am walking ON THE WATER! How cool is THAT? NO one has ever done this before…I am SO incredibly AWESOME!” At least, that’s how I would have felt, so this rendition works for me.

I think that, as soon as Peter thought he was doing this on his own, because he was so awesome, not because Jesus was giving him the ability to do it,  he began to sink. Of course Jesus reached out and saved the day, or at least, saved Peter from drowning.

This happens to me. Every. Day. I am just like Peter. (I think I am awesome, even though I am not, at least not always.) When I let myself get in the way, I am useless at what He asks me to do.  I am unable to use my words effectively, and I am unable to demonstrate kindness, or love, or grace, to anybody.

I had a situation at work that dragged on for months.  I started a new position at work, in another clinic within the same company. I love my job and was excited because my new job was only 4 minutes from home.  Who wouldn’t love that? My excruciating commute in Atlanta traffic was over.

I was excited to meet my new coworkers, and for the most part, most of them were wonderful. Strangely enough, however, a couple of people were a little disenchanted with me and with the fact that I had been transferred over to their clinic. They had some incorrect pre-conceived notions about me, and  did not welcome me with open arms. I didn’t understand why, and tried to correct the situation, but however I tried, I could not make things right. My work environment felt hostile, and  of course, I started to feel rather ugly myself. I could not summon up any good or warm feelings towards these other staff members.  I prayed for the ability to forgive these people, and still, I could not. Again, I confronted them and explained how I felt. I thought for certain that this would rectify things.  I learned that their preconceived ideas were due to lies that were told by other individuals, but still, they refused to show me any grace.  I was at my wits’ end, and couldn’t stop ruminating about this situation.  It was causing me a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Finally, one day , after many days of praying for change, I had an epiphany.  These people had not apologized or asked for my forgiveness, so why was I so intent on doling out forgiveness?  I realized that I was only required to love these people, not forgive them, at least in this situation.  Yet, how could I feel any warmth towards these individuals, let alone LOVE, after I felt I had been wronged?

However, I felt a wonderful freedom when I let things go and stopped looking for an apology.  I concentrated on getting myself in order, in doing my job well, and treating those around me fairly. I spent some time nurturing my relationship with the One who calls me to be me. Going forward, I hoped my situation would improve and it has.  For that I am grateful. Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus replied, “Love God with all your heart and soul, and then love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:34-40)

To  me, this was my miracle of the Christmas Season, this act of Blessed Release. I released something that I could never control, and it was replaced with Love and Grace. A special Love and Grace that I am incapable of conjuring up on my own. A Love and Grace towards others that can nurture Joy and Laughter in its wake.

”But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show us that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”-2 Corinthians 4:7

Leap of Faith

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 “You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all–irrespective of how we got here–in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day–a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”~Ephesians 2:19-22; The Message

My husband and I have been on a much anticipated vacation this past week, and in many ways, it has exceeded expectations. We took a road trip from our home in Georgia, to Minnesota to visit our children, and then to Canada to visit friends and family. We then drove around Lake Superior, to Chicago, and then back down to our newly beloved South.  It was a lot of driving, and I know some people shudder at that prospect, but we love it. It’s a great way to view the countryside and for me, I love it because I have my husband’s undivided attention for hours. No phone or computer to distract us, at least not really. We have a lovely relationship, we are very comfortable with each other. A trip like this gives us time to explore the country and its beauty, and we have ample opportunity to talk, or just enjoy each other’s company.

The photo depicted above is a snapshot of my husband’s feet, taken in Chicago during our vacation.   He was standing on the glass floor of the The Sky Deck of the Willis Tower, 412 meters above street level. He loves that kind of stuff.  He is fascinated by the engineering and technology required to build such a structure, and of course the view is breathtaking.  I am also fascinated by all of that, but it was a little harder for me to just step out onto the glass floor of the deck, as I am afraid of heights.  It is difficult for me to  trust that if I step out onto that glass floor,  it will not  shatter and I will not plummet all the way down to Franklin Street in downtown Chicago.  I mean, I did step out onto the glass floor and with my husband’s protective arm around me, I felt safe enough to pose for a picture.  I realize of course, that he wasn’t really protecting me from anything, because it was an extremely safe situation.  I wasn’t in harm’s way really, but having his arm around me helped, and I felt good that I had taken the plunge. We now have this cool memory of something we did together.

This week I also had time to think, and I found myself wondering about relationships, specifically those I’ve had with people in the various churches we’ve attended over the years. Taking that proverbial plunge onto The Sky Deck, made me think of other circumstances in life where it has taken some encouraging for me to take the plunge and join in on the life God is whispering to me about. I’ve written in my previous posts about our move, and starting a new chapter in our lives here in Georgia.  I’ve also eluded to some discontent and discomfort in finding a church community.

It’s inevitable that at this age, I would have come across a negative experience or two regarding the church, and because of that , I find I am more protective and guarded about showing any vulnerability, especially to those in a church community. I realize that this is a very sad statement, but true none the less.  I imagine I am not alone in feeling this way;  I have experienced feelings of judgement and self-righteousness from others that I would not wish on anyone else. However, feelings such as these are inevitable when we develop relationships with others, because we are all flawed and our stuff and emotional baggage gets in the way. It has become increasingly difficult for me to try to enter into new relationships every time I’ve moved on to a different community.  It is easy to believe, instead, that new relationships are unnecessary, and it’s nicer to stay at home, sleep in, or walk the dogs, rather than worshiping with others on Sundays.

My daughter once said she misses the feeling of community in church. She has not attended church for several years, for reasons of her own, but she shared this tidbit with me once when we were talking, and I agreed with her. Also, when my husband was discussing church attendance with our son last weekend, he (our son) mentioned that he wants to find a church that he can attend regularly, but he is shy to take the first step and just go. It is a difficult thing. I understand exactly how my kids feel. Sometimes  I feel as if I am standing on the edge of a precipice looking out, and I feel paralyzed, not able to move off the edge. Just like I did on the edge of the glass floor of The Sky Deck in the Willis Tower. I don’t like that feeling, and I don’t like the fact that I’ve become such an emotional mess, that attending church can be so traumatic for me.

The thing is , I have found a wonderful, closely knit group of people in a small church close to our home. The pastor is wonderful and has gone out of his way to communicate with my husband, and with me, to let us know that someone cares about us. God is using him to draw us near to Him; I know that. When I have attended services over the past few weeks, I  have sensed love and a genuine warmth radiating from the people in the congregation, yet I have left immediately after the service is over, unable to stay and make myself converse with those around me. I have left in tears, not understanding what is going on with me.

This week, while we were on vacation, I found myself missing church. To top that off, we received another warm text from our pastor, wishing us a good holiday, and a brief outline of what he was teaching about while we were away.  He was initiating a conversation about “church” and all that it entails, as outlined in Ephesians 2:19-22.

Friends, community and relationships. I understand now. The pull of God whispers while I am hiding from church, and finally, I am going to listen. I know it’s time for me to step off the precipice, and let His arms comfort me while I enjoy the view.

 

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“God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him. We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom..”~Psalms 46:1 The Message

Good Pasture

“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
imageTherefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. ” ~ Ezekiel 34:17-22

Last Sunday, I read a funny status on a friend’s Facebook wall. She mentioned that her pastor had related a story about one of the first international missions conferences, where missionaries from around the world had gathered: “Apparently, at this conference, the Dutch missionaries were so shocked and offended by the heavy make-up worn by the female American missionaries that their cigarettes fell right out of their mouths…” Of course, I liked that status, as did many others, because it was chuckle- worthy.  I even went so far as to comment on it, quite radically, I thought, because my comment was something along the lines of ” I  have often wondered who decided smoking was a sin.”

I meant my comment to be  funny, but I admit I was trying to be a bit of rabble-rouser.  I think in the “family of God” as we so often like to call ourselves, we are very quick to judge and point out the mistakes of others. I was not present for the sermon my friend listened to last Sunday, but I  suspect it may have embraced the lack of grace we often exhibit towards those we meet daily.

Literally, seconds after posting my comment on my friend’s wall, I received a private message from someone who was very concerned about me. He wanted to make sure that I knew for sure that smoking was indeed a sin, along with other things that    would “desecrate our bodies which are God’s temple.” I was exasperated by this private admonition because I felt misunderstood, but  I care for this person, and because I did not wish to offend anyone else, I quickly deleted my comment from my friends wall.  And so…the musing of these thoughts in my own head began…

I know smoking will lead to an early grave. So can gluttony and slothfulness, so, rest assured, my rather careless commentary did not mean that I am  on my way out to the nearest gas station to buy a pack of smokes.  I might add, that some “sins” like gluttony, slothfulness, and slander, are not given equal time in today’s church as some other “unpardonable” offenses.

When I read “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and an upstanding Christian leader during the Nazi-era, I learned that he was a chain-smoker. I guess this was a time in history before smoking was considered sinful. The Bible doesn’t mention smoking either. So, as an aside, since reading this book, I have wondered who decided smoking was a sin, and when it “became” a sin, and why we as a church love to condemn people if they engage in what we think is sinful or inappropriate behavior. My intention is not to spend too much time on the debates of the particular sins or offenses; I only wish to remind all of us that we need less judgement and more love and grace.

Reading this passage from Ezekiel this morning made me weep, because it so perfectly put into words how I  often feel when I think about the church today. I see  many people who are hurting, and tired, and they may be pushed aside or ignored by the self-righteous. We as a church, are quick to drink all that Christ offers us, and then we muddy the waters with our own pious rules and regulations. When someone we might find disreputable is in our midst, we trample them with our words and over bearing ways, and before you know it, they will not ever cross the thresholds of our churches again. We forget that judgement is reserved for God; our only mandate is to love as He loves us; to offer to others the same grace that we received from Him.  That’s all. It’s so simple  that it escapes us.

“When I lose my way, And I forget my name, Remind me who I am. In the mirror all I see, Is who I don’t wanna be, Remind me who I am. In the loneliest places, When I can’t remember what grace is.”

~ “Remind Me Who I Am” Jason Gray