Grace Is Real and Better Than We Think It Is

I internalized a lot of things as a child and young adult in church that may or may not have been intentionally taught to me. One of the things I got mixed up on was the relationship between pride and loving yourself. That somehow pride was really bad and led to ones inevitable demise (the "pride comes before a fall" scenario always felt very ominous and humiliating) and that we were only supposed to be proud of others (for their humility and service) and proud of God. And if we were too ambitious (boy, did that get thrown at me as a woman with ministry aspirations in the church of Christ!) or too happy with ourselves that somehow that made us proud and selfish. Everything was supposed to be about Jesus and then others. 
The problem I've found with this is that we can only treat others as well as we treat ourselves. Even that statement raises all kinds of rebuttal from my subconscious because I have treated others way better than myself for years. But if I'm really honest about that others-prioritizing from the past, I did that because I wanted others to treat me well, to esteem me and to give me their approval (which is how I would earn  Gods). As hard as it is to label that behavior negatively because it cost me a lot so I want to see it as good, prioritizing others in order to meet my own needs is actually manipulation and ultimately, a fascade. I know at the time I was trying to serve God, but I never could quite grasp how loved and acceptable I was in the eyes of God outside of my ability to show my faithfulness to Him with my good behavior and by encouraging others to do the same (ministry). 
Judging our faithfulness to God and our good standing with Him based on our behavior leads us to view others through the same lens. Suddenly we're not so sure about that person who got pregnant in high school or the couple who's getting divorced. Because if we can't accept our own lack of condemnation before God as His intentionally imperfect, beautiful human children, then we certainly can't offer that to those who are more demonstrably screwed up than we are! Turns out, this God will just save ANYONE. And what kind of stance is that? Is this another situation where you get an award just for participating? Inexplicably, YES.
As I've turned my spiritual life inward and discovered how irrevocably okay I am in and of myself, I've finally learned what grace really is. Grace isn't the voice that tells us that we're really terrible for sinning, but God loves us in spite of our behavior because He's so good. Grace is accepting our behavior as evidence of our humanity and our need for love, freedom, acceptance and security. That our humanness was not a mistake God made, but in fact, part of His design. He wants to be in relationship with "sinners." He has what He needs within Himself. He is His own community Father/Son/Spirit. We are not meant to be His equals. We are meant to be His companions, His friends, His children. 
This is not to say that our behavior is irrelevant. I recognize the temptation to see my viewpoint as saying "sin" is okay or doesn't exist. I'm still processing that because I think we're obsessed with sin and I reject that fixation. I guess I've landed at this point on the idea that Jesus took care of sins eternal consequences on the cross for all people for all time. And here on earth, the consequences are lived out sometimes very directly and sometimes completely arbitrarily. We can do our best to do right by our fellow man and not directly seek to do harm to others. But harm will come to us all as this is part of the repercussions of all being together on earth with different viewpoints, choices and levels of love for our fellow man. Plus, freak stuff happens. 
So, the consequences of sin, even in the here and now are not within our control. Thus, even by controlling ourselves as best we can, we will still sin and we will still experience the consequnces of others sin unfairly. If we're using our good behavior as security for a good life, we will be sorely disappointed. If I were to categorize the "sin" in my life now, I'm way more open to the "no-no" sins I was taught against (cursing is THE BEST) and way less compelled to commit the ones I find more serious (dishonesty, seeking self in a way that harms others, greed, overconsumption of material goods and resources, stockpiling treasures for myself, self-righteousness, obstinance to growth or change) that were not really discouraged much in the church and in some ways strongly encouraged as "good stewardship" or "remaining true". 
It seems to me that a lot of "bad behavior" comes from "bad" feelings. Shame is a powerful tool to control our behavior because we so desperately don't want to be bad. And the punishment we self-inflict is words of our fallenness when we've acted in a way that's hurtful to others. The more that we learn that we are okay, the more we learn to respect the okay-ness of the people around us. Shame threatens us. Self-love gives us the validation that there is enough resources, opportunity, love, safety, adventure to go around. Yes, we need to take risks and work. But we don't need to take from others and work over our competition. We're okay. So instead of good behavior coming from feeling like shit, self-acceptance actually leads to more socially-conscious, holistic living because we are living out of excess and abundance rather than defeciency and scarcity. And we are better able to recognize the value of our fellow man.
Turns out, focusing on myself, loving myself, being kind, gentle and generous to myself leads me to offer those things to the people around me freely. I never quite understood why "You're bad and God is so remarkably good because somehow He finds you lovable" was good news. It always felt like a burden of holiness (that is was something we did rather than something we were given) and a total lack of grace for self. It felt like rules and duties and an endless need to be grateful for it. 
I'm coming to the baffling conclusion that the abudant life Jesus came to give was a real message of love. Not love with conditions, or in spite of its object, but that the object itself is worthy and beautiful and valued beyond measure by its Creator. So much so, that He tells us His stories of love, invites us to be with Him and showers us with grace. He calls us daughter and son and created this bountiful world for us to live in and share. The story of humanity not being an experiment gone bad with limitless problems, but being bearers of this unmistakable light, that gives us breath and peace and freedom. And that good news is lived out IN us before it can be lived out BY us. 

The Illusion of Intellectual Scarcity

I consider one of my greatest gifts to be my intuition, specifically within the context of human interaction. I got my degree in psychology, with the idea that one day I would go to graduate school to become a therapist. I finished college at 21 years old and felt like I needed more life experience before I could offer a client lasting help in therapy. All these years later, it's still on my radar, though I have a lot of care-taking tendencies to continue to let go of if I'm ever going to pursue excellence in therapy (no other way to pursue such a tender calling, in my opinion). And I may not end up becoming a therapist at all. I see this process as part of my journey in becoming whoever I'm meant to be no matter which activities that does or doesn't lead me to. 
Sometimes I find myself intimidated by my more intellectual friends. For some funny reason, I have several friends in my sphere who have been trained in the art of debate. While I'm certainly honing my ability to have intense conversation with the honest intent to learn, rather than to correct, sometimes I find myself logically outmatched. Occasionally, my intimidation keeps me from writing. There are so many well thought-out pieces being written every day, shared online and submitted to my psyche for further rumination. What makes me think that my more emotional/relational perspective can really add to a cultural conversation? I'm not one to research statistics and frankly, I'm not all that interested in being intellectually compelling. 
My niche is more in perceived rightness than in provable logic. I live my life based on my beliefs, which are being filtered more and more through my intuition as I learn to give it more value and space. While I admire my friends whose belief filters are based on logic, I'm learning to validate the mystery and wonder of living by instinct. (Perhaps their instinct is to find truth through knowledge so this is just the other side of the same coin). One of the challenges to validating my feelings-based worldview is that I grew up in an authoritarian culture. My dad is a military man, extremely logical, a total perfectionist and a conservative evangelical. I'm the youngest of seven and female. These factors put me in a framework of seeing the world as pretty damn black and white. Plus, I'm a people-pleaser...gah! Instinct gets undervalued when there is always one right answer and the authority figure already has it. I don't mean this as a criticism of my dad personally or even of the intellectual worldview (to be fair, there are many variations on a intellectual worldview, including a total rejection of black and white thinking) but just as a means of highlighting the effort it has taken for me to say that living in my heart and mind, which is very feelings-based, is perfectly valid. 
Along with my authoritarian family culture, there was my church culture to contend with. I could discuss at length the very elevated value evangelical culture places on the Bible, in which my church of Christ upbringing upped the ante considerably. In this culture, all instinct that goes against a literal reading of the Bible must be cast out, of the devil and will lead to your eventual demise. There is an actual teaching that your heart is not to be trusted. I'm learning to sit in the places where a literal biblical interpretation and my compassionate, emotional self diverge and ask questions. No longer "why, God, why?" but more "is there another way to see this?" 
As you can imagine, this gets messy quickly, leaving room for more questions than answers. But I'm learning to see the beauty in my intellectual mess because I'm being faithful to the heart that God has given me. The heart that sides with people over behavioral purity. I remind myself that Jesus was a bit of an enigma. He broke an awful lot of centuries-old rules and made a lot of people mad. Oftentimes, Christians use that as an excuse to fight things like gay marriage, almost like offending people means we're doing the right thing. I say, perhaps we're doing the right thing if we're offending the religious sect that has all their theological ducks in a row and doesn't see the very living, breathing, beautiful person right in front of them. The person who was made in the image of God. The person who has inherent value. The person who deserves every opportunity. The person who is equally important regardless of race, gender, social status, education or sexual orientation. The person who isn't broken or perfect, just human, which is all we ever need to be.
I guess what I want to say today is that there is enough room at the table for conversation for all of us feelers too. That perhaps the union of emotional intelligence and logic makes for a better learning experience for us all. And I am trying not to be afraid to speak my heart when sometimes all the voices I hear are speaking their mind.  

Give Dignity

As a perfectionist, I struggle with separating my actions from my personal value. Most perfectionists either under-perform or over-perform. The under-performers contemplate a task, feel overwhelmed by their inability to do it perfectly and choose not to attempt it at all. Over-performers do too many tasks, often thoroughly and then project their high-achieving personal expectations onto others all the while feeling resentment and exhaustion because they have to "do everything themselves." Both of these life approaches seriously suck. I get to say that because I'm talking about myself. (I'm the latter, by the way, and waffle between judging and feeling jealous of the former).
I bring this issue up in the midst of my series on personal values because I think it touches on the core of my next value. I'm calling it dignity. For me, part of my reasoning for removing myself from the church environment, at least for now, has been about an inappropriate connection I've felt in church between self and actions. When we condemn people, rather than choices, I think we've made a critical error. We've chosen not to give dignity to the human being in question. 
I firmly believe that human beings were made in the image of God, that we are intended for good, that we are capable of great things, and that ultimately, we are good. Are we also capable of self-destructive patterns that can harm others? Of course. But is that who we really are, in our heart of hearts? Is that where we are happiest, most fulfilled, free and full of love, joy and peace? No. *
Because of this belief, I reject any cultural pattern that uses shame as a way to control behavior. This very much includes the evangelical church. Children are not "bad girls/boys" when they make bad choices. They are precious people who are doing something wrong/unhealthy/harmful/bad, however you want to frame that. But they are not bad when they make bad choices, have a bad moment, feel big emotions, or make the "lesser" choice. They need guidance, tools, encouragement and dignity to make better choices. They don't need shame.
I cannot overstate how important the difference is between these two approaches. When we make someone feel bad about WHO THEY ARE based on WHAT THEY DO, we're often perpetuating the exact reasons why people make bad choices in the first place - because they feel like shit. (I'm also really working on not framing everything as "good" or "bad" in the first place, but that's another conversation. I'm using good/bad framework to make a greater point here).
Using this lens, I see the people around me, my children and myself very differently. I'm working to no longer pressure myself to behave in order to make others approve of me, that their approval somehow makes me something that I'm not without it. It's revolutionized the way I approach my faith. I'm beginning to learn what grace really is! And guess what? It's AWESOME. I'm replacing the idea that I'm terrible and He's so great with I'm great and He thinks so too. He's my source and He's my friend. While I tend to be hard on myself, He's soft towards me. In my personal experience (which I understand is wildly subjective), He is always sweeter, kinder, gentler and more patient that I am with myself. After all this time, I'm still blown away by Him.
It's taken me awhile to identify shame and its destructive nature in me. If you're not entirely sure what I'm talking about, check out Brene Brown's extensive work on the subject. She has done amazing research and her descriptions of what shame feels like and how to combat it have been really helpful to me. When you shut yourself down because your feelings are "stupid/dramatic/dumb/overreacting", that's shame. When you decide not to communicate what you're thinking and feeling because "they probably won't listen to me anyway/it's not important/it'll just make them mad", that's shame. When you don't want to do something but you do it anyway because you feel like you should, that's often motivated by shame. When you don't communicate what you need because "it's too much/not worth it/silly", that's shame. 
We have GOT to give ourselves dignity or we'll never be able to extend it to others. We don't give ourselves dignity so we can dole it out (also an important distinction). We give ourselves dignity because God put it in us when He made us. Humans are inherently valuable regardless of belief, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status and political party. We are worthy of respect and dignity BY NATURE. We need to acknowledge that within ourselves and within the people all around us, especially people we don't love or agree with. It's so insanely easy to assume ill motive of others who come from a different perspective. But they deserve dignity and their views are valid, even if you disagree. 
The lack of giving others dignity (I also see this as giving people the benefit of the doubt) is so clearly seen in how conservative Christians treat Barack Obama. Yes, apparently I'm going there. He's a person, guys. He's not the anti-christ, terrorist, Muslim that you say he is. He's a person. You may disagree with him politically. That's fine. We're lucky to live in a country where that is perfectly acceptable. Use your voting power and your influence to make change. In your disagreement, don't forget to acknowledge that he is a human being and therefore, has inherent dignity that needs to be treated with respect. (My husband next to me would like to add that this disparaging treatment, of course, happened to George W. Bush as well. Unfortunately, hatred runs on both sides of this partisan river. This is one of the many reasons I try to stay out of political arguments - says the woman who probably just started one).
When we focus on sin elimination in the church (always working on some sin area in our lives) we completely miss the point of grace. God is not in the business of behavior modification. Of course, we are not entirely separate from our actions. But neither are we the sum of them. The story of the adulterous woman comes to mind. The Jews bring before Jesus a woman they caught in the act of adultery and ask if she is to be stoned (according to Old Testament law). Not even going to start ranting here about where the eff the man is in this scenario, but seriously? WTF? Jesus gets down on her level, writes something on the ground (we don't know what) and asks the crowd to stone her if they haven't sinned themselves. They all walk away, he looks into her eyes and tells her she's safe ("I don't condemn you") and she can make different choices ("Go and sin no more), not because she's a bad person and needs to shape up, but because she is loved! She matters! He is giving her dignity. 
This is a huge deal for a number of reasons. He had every authority to lay into her. Man, he would have been fully qualified to condemn her. The object of this gift of dignity is a woman. Seriously, in this culture, especially an "impure" woman was of very little value. He spoke to her. He got on her level. He defended her publicly. He did not condemn her. He also empowered her to do good. If he can give her dignity, how can we not give it to her and to ourselves as well? 
Who are the "adulterous women" in our modern culture? Certainly, women are still struggling to be given dignity. Definitely anyone in a racial minority. There is certainly a lot of angst among the various religious groups in our country right now. Homosexual and transgender individuals most definitely. Poor people, yup. How can we give dignity to them? How can we stop seeing them as "them" and begin to see them as "us"? Because let's face it, folks: every human has inherent dignity given to them by God. Don't take it away. Be in the business of giving it back.

* As a side note, I will say that I believe there is a point in a person's life where they can cultivate their evil leanings, leading to a very active, purposefully destructive lifestyle. While I believe this goes against our intended nature, it is clearly evident in those who take great pleasure in hurting others. I'm more speaking to us normal folks, not the sadists in the world.

The "Ministry" of Busyness

I was visiting with a friend today (I tend to do that a lot:) who is in ministry and I felt like I was looking in a mirror or maybe even the ghost of Christmas future if I were to have stayed in that life. She's much older than I am, with many more years in ministry under her belt. She's made different choices than I have, though I see similar hang ups between us. I'm not sure if our similar personal issues are products of being in church leadership or if they are what drew us to ministry in the first place. It's probably both. I'm confident that these things are fundamentally unhealthy and commonly reinforced by the church leadership environment. I see her people-pleasing. I see her exhausting herself. I see her floundering to keep up with the expectations placed on her both by her past behavior (over-activity) and by the community who hired her husband to serve them. 
I see her missing opportunities to be still. I see her mind racing frantically; her heart left unattended while she watches over the hearts of others. I see her telling herself and others that she enjoys all her service activities, while her spirit says she needs rest. Don't get me wrong; she is a LOVELY person. She believes she's doing the right thing, serving God, being fulfilled by it, even. While my ministry experience is limited in comparison to hers, I feel like I've been around the block enough to be able to identify care-taking, people-pleasing, resentment and burn out. I feel like I can see that without judging her because THAT'S ME! The church teaches us that "service" is the most important thing. That's how we act like Jesus, which is the ultimate goal. Service is defined by not thinking of (listening to) yourself but by putting others first. Yes is always the right answer. 
I'm all for loving people and going out of my way to be mindful of how my choices affect others. And maybe it's just me, as I'm the one who's therapist is hoping that the "others first" voice in my head would actually quiet down. That I wouldn't let my concern for others override my concern for myself. Even writing that, I know the over-churched will read that and think I'm a heretic at worst, or selfish at best.
Maybe I'm the only church-goer who has spent years valuing being nice over being emotionally, physically and  spiritually healthy. Maybe it's helpful for those "worldly" people who need to be constantly told that they're selfish; there's something wrong with them; and they need to fix it by serving others.  
For me, I'm in a detoxing process from this kind of theology. I'm learning to listen to my voice. As a highly sensitive person, I can very easily tell you what the voices of "God", my parents, spouse, friends, religion and country would say WAY before I could tell you what I really need to be doing, thinking and feeling according to my personal viewpoint. Again, maybe I'm the only one. But in my Christian process, I'm learning that listening to my own voice is part of me listening to God. (Again, heresy! What about how our hearts are evil?!?!) He made me who I am, and the ultimate form of worship to Him is to love myself, to have grace for myself, and to be honest. If I'm honest about my humanity and not trying to overcompensate for it (serving when my heart doesn't want to), I just might be in a better position to listen to the stories and journeys of all the people in the world around me. Believe me, when your soul, mind, heart and body are well-fed, you genuinely take pleasure in giving to your fellow man. The times that I have felt resentful, ungracious and stingy towards others are when I'm doing a "service" out of "the shoulds" or on an empty tank. This doesn't make me a bad, selfish, unloving person. This simply makes me a person. Embracing the reality of our humanity, that we really only have so much to give when we're not first giving to ourselves, is critical to true, honest living. 
When I stopped sitting in the theology that there's something wrong with me; I'm selfish and untrustworthy; I need to be what other people tell me I should be; that God is displeased with me unless I act in a certain way (that looks like every other believer); other people's salvation process is up to me; and that my work is never done; I FINALLY learned what grace really is. As good at church as I was, I still felt like I had no idea what grace really looked like as it applied to me.  
I think this is ultimately my problem with theology that over-focuses on sin. I understand that sin is a big problem, that it separates us from God, that Jesus died because of it. But if I believe that, isn't that all sorted out now? I know we like to debate issues of if we're "once saved, always saved", but if my Christian faith is a constant process of re-confessing, re-feeling guilty, and re-serving out of shame and a need to be loved, isn't that actually a slap in the face of the God who's already forgiven me, once and for all? I know Paul says that embracing grace doesn't mean we should pursue sin all the more because grace is abundant, I get that. But what if Christianity looked like ending the constant sin wrangling and instead focused on participating in the Kingdom of God NOW? What would our hearts be freed up to think, imagine, dream, and do if we stopped expending our energies on perfecting ourselves, constantly trying to figure out which sin we should work on next? Not hoping that we've said or done the right rituals in this life to make it in the gates of heaven when we die, but that our every moment can be about engaging in the world around us, with listening ears (not with judgment or even answers), with open hearts and minds? That we can change! That others can teach me something; about myself, God, the world. I find myself so much more interested in others when I take care of myself. I don't see their needs as a personal burden to me. I see myself growing through conversation, through reading, through writing, through changing my plans in the moment. I spent a lot of years with my head down, focused on my commitments and responsibilities, not able to be present, already thinking of what I needed to do to prepare for future moments. 
I guess what I'm saying is, be willing to be pleasantly surprised, filled with hope, inspired by the moment, and open to the world around you. Don't rush through life like it's a burden. Don't get me wrong; life is full of burdens!!! But take the grace right in front of you; whether it's a conversation with a friend, an afternoon in bed with a book, a great glass of wine, or taking something off your list today. I've found when I focus on working on my "stuff" and what God wants me to be (present, open, full of grace, hopeful, generous) then I'm too engaged in that work to be worried about what other people think my life is supposed to look like. Perhaps I'm not the only one whose main "ministry" is this. 

It's about to get real...

I have many lighthearted type of anecdotes to share on here at some point, but I tend to run deep so hang on tight. It's gonna get real today, people. I want to go on the record as a married person who has gone through 2 seasons in her life now where she has fantasized about being single. Yes, I'm a nice person with a great husband (whom I love dearly) and 2 precious children who bring me great joy almost every day, which is pretty amazing, really. But occasionally I think back to my globe-trotting single days and think yeah, I'd like to go back to that time when things were simple. I was a viable, virginal girl (because let's face it, Christian woman find singleness more intimidating when they're no longer virgins, regardless of the reason) and the world was my oyster. I hesitate to speak frankly on the idea of singleness fantasies because I've never heard a married person say these truths and what if (eek!) I'm the only person out there who sometimes wants to think for 1 instead of 4?!?! A few years of wandering in Europe sound pretty good sometimes. I sleep well on trains and somehow avoided the Taken scenario the whole year I lived in Germany at 19. The fact that my many amazing single friends aren't currently wandering in Europe and aren't any happier than I am is entirely beside the point. 
There are many reasons for said fantasy. I, for one, am a runner. I hate to admit it because it feels like I'm shaming myself, but perhaps this is the fate of a perfectionist. Relationships aren't all good or all bad. And I hate that! Growing up in an evangelical household (which included our home, church, and school) life was painted as a series of good decisions and bad decisions. Your future mate would be a "godly" guy - knight in shining armor stuff, and there was one RIGHT person who was specifically designed by God for me. And in the meantime, marry Jesus! He's a pretty great husband, right? Though, I think we all know, JC never married. I have literally participated in 2 fake wedding ceremonies to Jesus in my life. Spring this on a silly kid and at best, it might plant a seed of loving God in their heart or at least stop them from having premarital sex. Do this to a serious perfectionist and she'll end up breaking up with her incredibly safe, chaste boyfriend out of commitment to her new husband. (I broke up with that wonderful boy 3 TIMES, poor guy). 
Needless to say, these attempts at teaching us that TRUE LOVE WAITS also taught us that true love is perfect, pure, and safe. Perhaps that's true about agape type Jesus marriages. But relationships between two people who are honest and who have had crazy shit happen in their life together get messy. The beautiful thing I'm coming to terms with is that IT SHOULD. Messy is real. True love isn't pure (meaning without fault, blame, mess, mistakes, fantasies of no one talking to you before 9am, resentment, grief, and heartache). Perhaps we're still in the process of figuring out what true love looks like.  
I think my perfectionist mind thinks relationships are either pure (childhood standard) or a trap (stay no matter what). This is the curse of being a black and white thinker. It's one or the other. It's good or bad. It's wonderful or it's awful. Turns out, it's both and. It's good and it's bad. Because even I, perfectionist who wants to save everyone, who's been on a pedestal her whole life (we'll get to that later:) am both and. Wonderful and mean. Loving and resentful. Honest and self-serving. Committed and restless. I don't think this means something terrible about me, my life, or my marriage. I think this means I'm human.