I grew up in a home where grey wasn’t a color – everything was black or white. One of my Scandinavian father’s favorite phrases was, “there is a right was and a wrong way to do everything.” We had a protocol for the amount of milk to be poured, the distance a napkin should be from a plate, the appropriate volume to knock on the door … you get the picture. As the oldest of five girls I loved this order. Knowing I had colored in the lines produced a sense of safety I couldn’t find in an uncertain world.
This translated into a childhood of ‘best citizen awards’ and an adolescence where I rarely missed curfew. This predilection for perfection made me an ideal candidate for a conservative church which promised that if I was holy enough God would reward me. At the very least the church would laud me for being, “such a strong Christian.” How I loved this church. I’ll never forget the day I sat in a packed auditorium of youth and listened to the preacher speak on spiritual practices. I came home and promptly produced hundreds of 4X4 cards with a checklist of spiritual practices: quiet time, tithing, service work, Bible study, intercessory prayer. I had cracked the code to earning God’s favor.
Somewhere in this maze of rules I took a wrong turn and at 19 I found myself kneeling in my college bedroom blasting contemporary praise music and hoping to feel God’s love. My plan had failed. I had been doing everything ‘right’ yet I was depressed. I wondered if I’d ever feel joy again. This wondering morphed into disbelief and I spent a good 3 years searching for love (as they say) in all the wrong places.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.
At 23 I found myself in a beautiful community of people who, like me, had deep yearnings for God. Also like me their paths had gotten a little twisted and they had found themselves in need of a serious restart. This community welcomed my imperfections, they acknowledged my messiness and suggested that perhaps it wasn’t my job to fix everything, just trust God’s love and keep trudging.
I’d love to wrap up this post with a trite remark about how that changed everything and since then I have lived in union with God’s love but that’s not my story. My story is that I’ve been trudging along for the last five years – still struggling to understand how God can love me in my imperfections. My story is that life, in all her glory, is constantly reminding me that I’ll never be done with this lesson.
I’m rereading Brendan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel – it’s a beautiful account of one man’s love affair with grace. I read it for the first time around 19 but I completely missed the message. I, again, created some sort of checklist for how to get grace. Shockingly this wasn’t the way to get grace. This time around I’m finally in a place to hear Manning’s powerful song. I find myself reading the book slowly, taking in each promise of grace like a sip of hot tea. Just Friday this gem found me,
Grace strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. … It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
Manning is quoting Paul Tillich’s The Shaking of Foundations. These words go straight to my heart. Even when I glimpse the radical gift of grace I still understand it as a motivator for change. Tillich begs the question, what if it was enough JUST to experience grace. What if that moment,when you feel God’s all consuming love was in fact, enough? What if nothing more was required but to sit in the presence of God and bask in the goodness of grace? It is unbelievably risky but perhaps this is what it means to let go of every bit self-reliance and utterly trust in God.
I can already hear my inner critic asking, does this mean we act irresponsibly to prove grace?! By no means am I advocating for a reckless course of action, rather I am suggesting that our entire role in salvation is to seek to fully understand the width and height and breadth of God’s merciful love for us – full stop.
I have this sneaking suspicion that if we boldly throw away our carefully crafted rule books and spend our time seeking God’s love we will live more in sync with God than ever before. Alternatively, we can choose to spend our days seeking out righteousness and perhaps lose sight of the fantastic promise of God’s grace. The choice depends on us, grace on the other hand, is there regardless. Amen and Amen.