Tag Archives: grace

differing graciously

Last night, Ricky and I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren speak with Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in DC, as part of their Compelling Conversations series. Brian’s books have had a meaningful presence in our lives for quite a few years now, ever since our friend Heath lent us his copy of A New Kind of Christian. I didn’t know at the time just how much I would come to appreciate progressive Christian voices, or how much of a lifeline they would be for me.

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The conversation centered largely around the tension between evangelical American Christianity as it’s more commonly practiced and the folks who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with it…emergents, progressives, post-evangelicals, or whatever else you want to call them/us. I had to laugh when Brian mentioned that when people accuse him of heresy or falling down the slippery slope, he can only respond, “it’s much worse than you think.”

It’s been painful but liberating to realize I’ve spent most of my life entrenched in two types of Christianity that tend to fancy themselves the only type of Christianity: fundamentalism as a child and evangelicalism as a young adult. Those systems are not all bad or all good, of course, but there are good things outside of them. There are other ways to be faithful, to seek, to serve. I think that’s good news for all of us.

I’ve realized something big lately–I desperately want to be understood, especially by my friends who are still “in” systems from which I’ve stepped out. This desire grew so much over the years that I wanted to scream out my thoughts sometimes. Brian spoke some words last night that helped me to see how I might handle this better.

He offered this suggestion: when a friend, family member, etc. says something that you disagree with, maybe even find wildly offensive, say this: Wow, I see that differently. Then, leave it alone. If they ask you to explain, do so at another time, but not right away. In this way, you show that you’re willing to speak up but you don’t have to try to convince them of anything. It’s refreshing, and it opens up some space for dialogue. I think my favorite line was this: it’s really a gift when you can be different and not uptight about it. I have some work to do in that area.

In the same vein, he spoke of what an African theologian once told him: “Have the courage to differ graciously.” Brian noted that because this man approached theology from an African perspective, it might be called African theology, as when a woman approaches theology it might be called feminist theology, or when a gay person approaches theology it might be called queer theology, but a white European-based male approach is simply called theology (probably with a capital T). People approach theology differently, but some think their way is the way. We differ, meaning we are able to voice our disagreements, but we do it graciously, not defensively, not to prove a point, but as an effort to build something over time.

Not everyone can or will acknowledge their own bias and influencing factors. We should try to, and we should have grace for those who can’t see it yet. We should have grace for all the things we haven’t realized yet, too, as well as all the obtuse things we may have said in the past (yeah, that would be me).

I think I need to work on contentment with this: I am understood well by a few people. That is a gift, and it is enough.

Listen is my word for 2014. I’m learning that there’s nothing passive about listening–it’s a daily choice to acknowledge that whoever I come into contact with has a point of view that their life has given them, and to treat that gently. It doesn’t mean hiding my disagreement, but it does mean seeking to understand, and discerning well when to speak and when to refrain.

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minutes and hours

Those stinking January blues descended here in full force last week, and my first response was to regret that I hadn’t done enough to stave them off. After all, I’d given in to my homebody tendencies too many times: weighing the energy it takes to go out with a one and three year old against the ease of just staying in and nearly always choosing the latter. I’d read too many serious books, and indulged in too many cups of coffee and not nearly enough glasses of water. All the usual signs of trying to comfort myself, followed by all the usual reminders that I need more.

The sun shone just a certain way some days and I started to think about Spring. I called my mother to ask if she thought it was too late to plant bulbs. Ricky was gone for six days, and I surprised myself by not turning into a total heap on the floor. I made good use of the Yes prayer during those days, most assuredly.

Still, I started to dread another day indoors, trying to set a cheerful tone and resisting the urge to pull the curtains shut. Tired mornings even after plenty of sleep. I get this way, in Winter. Do you?

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One day, Silas was wiggling around as I changed his Pull-Up, and I asked him to be still. “Just a minute, sweetheart,” he murmured, rolling his train along the side of the table. Something inside me was hibernating, and in that moment it stirred a bit. Sweetheart.

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On Tuesday it snowed again; magical because of the babies’ excitement. I did a lot of looking out windows and it felt like a metaphor for my life right now. I watched Nicky run in his clunky boots to the neighbor’s house to play with Legos and swords, I watched Silas and Aimee turn their faces up to catch the flakes. Aimee’s lashes were white with them. I watched, and it was all I could seem to do. The minimum things: laundry and dinner, were heavy.

In that heaviness I tried to remember: if I were someone else, I would give me a hug. I was full of questions as I tried to scrape my tenderness together into an evening meal. This song played in the background. Where Grace is found, is where you are. The image of God as a tired-but-trying mother hen, longing to gather chicks under wings, came to mind. I imagined myself being gathered there willingly, gladly. Cared for as I navigated the rhythms we all do: freeze, thaw, sleep, wake. Learn, relearn, teach, relearn. Every hour I need you–no truer words exist for me.

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The weekend came and I did some helpful things: a text message to our lovely babysitter, a dinner out, a long cold walk around a frozen lake. I seem to be better at caring for myself when I remember how deeply cared for I am. As another week begins, I remember this.

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all are fed

Recently I read a book called Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint  by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s intrigued me ever since I saw this video of her speaking at a youth conference last year, and actually Ricky and I visited her church in Denver when we were there earlier this year . She wasn’t there that particular Sunday, but that wasn’t really the point I suppose. I count it as a healing experience, something I tucked away in my memory for safekeeping. Church can be like this. Remember.

Nadia’s a good public figure to pay attention to if, like me,  you’re fascinated by what church has the potential to be. Her willingness to simply be herself is refreshing, when it’s felt to me for so long that in order to really belong within the Christian subculture I’ve known, a certain pretense is required.

See, I grew up thinking that I would gradually gain more and more control over my bad habits, not-so-lovely personality traits, and temper. That, through the process of sanctification, I would someday “look” like I should as a Christian. Because Christians are salt and light, right? So aren’t we supposed to stand out and be “better” in some ways? I don’t know how much of that to attribute to teaching I received, and how much to attribute to my interpretation of it, but it’s what I believed for a long time.

Life has only shown me that this isn’t the case. Every single day I disappoint myself in some way, and to be honest, it’s exhausting. Even when I respond to frustration in a way I’m pleased with, I still feel burdened by the frustration itself. That pretense I spoke of earlier–this is where it comes from. If people really know me, then I can’t lead the small group/sing on the worship team/teach the kids/mentor the youth. Those jobs are for people who have it together. What ministry can I have if I can’t even get a hold on my own issues? It’s no wonder that we’re really, really good at pretending. 

I used to respond to my own behavior vs. ideal conflicts by making spiritual to-do lists for myself. Pray more. Spend more time reading Scripture. Meditate on the fruits of the Spirit. None of these things are bad–in fact they can be quite helpful. But all of my efforts to be better have never yet changed my tendencies. And that has created a nasty cycle of self-loathing that I continue to fall into.

There must be a better way.

Nadia writes:

Yet despite my experiences of rejection and my years of theological education, countless prayers, an ordination, and a life centered on serving the church, I still have the same personality I was born with. I am often impatient and cranky. And my first response to almost everything is “f__ you.” I don’t often stay there, but I almost always start there. I’m still me. Yet the fact that I manage to now move from “f__ you” to something less hostile, and the fact that I am often able to make that move quickly, well, once again, all of it makes me believe in God. And every time, it feels like repentance. (kindle loc 192)

I almost always start there. Sure, some days are better than others, but we bump up against our true nature repeatedly. Maybe that’s what keeps us needing grace. Maybe the more we need grace, the more we extend it. Nadia tells the story of one of her parishioners, a man named Rick. He’s a con artist who has gone by many names and lied to a lot of people, and eventually shows up at Nadia’s church. She’s not happy to have him there, but she considers how Jesus would respond to someone like Rick. She goes on to talk about human nature and our struggle against it, and this is the part the really resonates with me.

Rick…is trying to be a real person for the first time in his life and he doesn’t really know who that person is anymore. But he sees a glimpse of it at the communion table. He sees it in the eyes of the person serving him the wine and bread, saying, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you.” That’s his repentance. (loc 192)

I love that she places repentance in an act. A movement away from hostility, away from falseness, toward the gift of bread and wine. Here, repentance is simply a movement toward grace. God takes it from there.

My ingrained, childish way of thinking demands a resolution to all of this. Before, after. Good, bad. Black, white. In need of grace, and then what? What is the antithesis of needing grace? Perfection, which is an impossible, exhausting, graceless destination.

“It hurts a little, being loved for who I really am,” he told me recently. Rick has been sober now for six months, he is getting help for his manic depression, and recently moved indoors. He is also one of the loudest people I’ve ever met and is so spastically hyperactive that I often wonder if he’s lying about taking his medication. He could be lying about everything, but that’s true of everybody. All I know for sure is that he’s still unbelievably helpful at every church function and that he is loved and wanted at House for All.

In the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Denver actions, he organized and oversaw all of the food distribution at the hub of the local protests. “Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!” Rick chirped to me over the phone. “Everyone is fed. It doesn’t matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn’t even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break.” He pauses. “The only place I’ve ever really seen that is at communion.” (loc 194)

May my repentance be to move toward grace today, rather than run from it. May the love I feel there enable me to love better, and may I move toward grace again tomorrow. I will need it.

Ricky and I went to see Nadia speak on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. as part of her book tour. There was also a lively conversation with Amy Butler, a pastor in D.C., about the future of church. The perfect church nerd date night, we called it. She read several passages from the book, including one about Rick, and commented that his is maybe not the sort of success stories that one typically hears from a pulpit: he was this way, now he’s that way. Rather, he’s still a mess, but he’s their mess now.

I’d like to be salt and light, really I would.  But what is it that gives flavor and warmth? I think it’s honesty. Vulnerability. And perhaps most importantly, kindness to others who are brave enough to embrace those things, and also to those who are still working up the courage.

I’m finding out that church can be as simple, and as miraculous, as approaching the table. All are fed there.

 

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