Tag Archives: grace

One side of the coin

Some days I leave work, and my only response to humanity as a whole (or, more specifically, that subset who take advantage of their power and privilege to do violence with impunity) is in line with what Roy here says below:

As I was driving home tonight, I remembered the corollary to the above statement made by the southern theologian Will Campbell when he was asked to define what Christianity meant to him, and he responded, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway…”

It doesn’t make the anger go away, or make everything all better…  The problem is still there.  But I’m no longer alone in it.  And neither are the girls…

People are bastards.  Men are bastards.  But God loves us anyway

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Without condition

Three years ago I was vacillating between engaged participant and shell-shocked bystander in the final acts of a long-term (for me) relationship.  I had thought I would spend the rest of my life with this woman.  I was wrong.  Its implosion was spectacular, and devastating.  In some ways, it was like watching the Hindenburg disaster – a horrifying mix of tragedy with flickers of beauty and hope that kept one glued to the scene, hoping against hope that a survivor or two would escape the wreckage, and having each hope dashed time and time again until there was nothing left but ashes.

Two years ago I was tentatively jumping off the cliff into deep relational waters with a different lovely young woman whom I enjoyed, respected, and thought there was potential.  But fear and insecurity and uncertainty and listening to my heart – what I actually wanted, and not just what I thought I should want – led us to the end.

Last year I started communicating regularly with a passionate, creative, hilarious acquaintance, knowing that with the distance in place it was probably not a good idea…  But we kept talking.  Until fear or cowardice or good sense or simple honesty or a little bit of everything compelled me to end our communication.

The common thread in all three of these relationships (and, if I’m being completely honest, in most – maybe all? – of my other relationships) is the inability to do what Thomas Merton suggests:

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them…”  ~ Thomas Merton

This is my stumbling block.

This is the lesson that I have learned from others, even if they did not mean to teach it to me:

“You are loveable, and it is possible that someone could love you…
– as long as you are improving.
– as long as you don’t stay the same.
– as long as you stop making the same stupid mistakes over again.
– as long as you change, and become someone different, someone better.
– as long as you produce something grand for others.
– as long as you are living up to your full potential.
– as long as you are doing amazing things in the world.
– as long as you are not normal, or ordinary, or boring.
– as long as you hide your deepest weaknesses and insecurities, your shattered brokenness and your shameful darkness.
– as long as you are at all times the person you pretend to be.”

And this is the way I loved others all too often.

I internalized those lessons.  I applied them to others in my life.  I judged.  I evaluated.  I withheld.  I wounded others.  I told myself that I loved the potential that I saw in them – and while that potential was very great, it blinded me to the actual loving of the person that I was in relationship with.  It blinded me to the needs and brokenness and beauty of the person in front of me.  And the love that I had to give was only a pale shadow of the love that I wanted to give, of the love I wanted to receive.

These last few months, I have been asking myself what it means to love without condition.

What does it look like to love with no strings attached?

What does love look like when it is not only concerned with what the future holds or the great things the beloved can accomplish, but is content to simply delight in being in the presence of the beloved?

What does it feel like to know and understand the depths of grace – to feel in your bones that you are accepted just as you are, and you are deeply, fiercely, richly loved?

It is bigger.  Fuller.  Richer.  Deeper.  Brighter.  Heavier.  Tastier.

To accept that I am loved.  Shockingly.  Unexpectedly.  Undeservedly.  Beautifully.  Entirely.

It is how I want to be loved, and how I want to learn to love others:
– co-workers.
– clients.
– friends.
– parents.
– brothers and sisters.
– habibi.
– Abba.

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”  ~ Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton
via Father Bill

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Only Love

The last time I was at the Music Box theater was over a year ago, with Ryan.  It’s a fun theater which shows quirky fare.  Tonight they were screening several of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries.  The second one we watched was titled “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.”

Over the forty-minute long film, we come to know Jack Hall, an 83-year-old World War 2 veteran who is serving a life sentence for murder. He has congestive heart failure, has been in the hospital wing for the past 10 years after multiple heart attacks, and is not doing well. We follow him around as he is wheeled out into the yard to visit with his friends, we follow him to worship services and doctor’s visits and eventually follow him into one of the two hospice rooms of the Iowa State Penitentiary.

It is a startling, intimate, humanizing look into the lives of several men who are incarcerated – and what it means to die with dignity in prison.

The most arresting moments we were invited into were the moments that Jack shared with his hospice care-givers – volunteers who spent 10-12 hours a day with him 5 days a week, in shifts so that he was never alone: bathing him, holding his hand, praying with him and for him, rubbing his back, shaving him, laughing and joking and simply being with him so that he would not die alone.

One of the volunteers was named Love – serving a life sentence for kidnapping. Love was with Jack as he faded into a coma, and became unresponsive. Love was with Jack as he stopped breathing.

And for someone who all too often tears up while listening to “This American Life,” I was gone.

Such a beautiful picture of what reconciliation can look like – life transformed and made new…  Even the murderers and kidnappers and the embezzlers and the gossips and the liars and the racists and the selfish and the greedy and the prideful – Jack, and Love, and you, and me…

—–

(for more on “Prison Terminal,” check out this piece on “Fresh Air.”)

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Water

The shattering weight of summer-light pressed down and through shadowed tree covered lanes as we walked home from the cafe. Turning a corner, we saw the girl in front of us dancing through, and around, and between rainbow streams of shimmering water, spraying and spinning and spiraling. There was beauty in the interplay of light and shadow, of sprinklers and water and scintillating rainbows that scattered shards of light profligately, without regard for whom might see, or appreciate this holy symphony of movement and color.

“…it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash…”

~ Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

This was one of those moments.

Leaving Neil’s house, biking down to the lake, I was struck once more by the extravagance on display – water in blues and greens, as far as the eye could see, shimmering and sparkling, evidence of grace.

Water is not only for the deserving.

Water does not only quench the thirst of the pure.

Water gives life to all, evenhandedly, without condition, without restraint.

I stopped my bike on the shore, captivated by the joyous call of the water.

Finally, unable to resist, I gave in to its siren song, leaping into the blue-green womb with abandon and laughter, over and over and over again…

Thankful.

Humbled.

Blessed.

Made new.

“…water was made primarily for blessing…”

lake michigan

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Flat tires and looking good

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A number of years ago I spent about four months living and working in Nepal with WMF.  I arrived in Kathmandu a few months after my 20th birthday, idealistic, full of big dreams about the difference I would make, and certain that my time would be an adventure in every way, serving the poor, learning to be like Jesus, and basically having everyone admire me for how amazing I was.  It only took me a few weeks to find out that I was not all that.

I had arrived with visions of being the next Mother Theresa or Gandhi, with a touch of Oscar Romero thrown in, and my expectations were dashed when I discovered that the “working with street kids” (which I envisioned as cute little boys and girls who were hungry for affection and just needed someone to come play soccer with them for a few hours each week to point them on a path towards wholeness, health, and the restoration of all that was broken in their lives) that I had hoped to be involved in wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, we would be spending our time volunteering at one of the local Missionaries of Charity homes, doing distinctly unglamorous tasks such as pulling up water from the well, washing dishes, cleaning, doing laundry by hand, cleaning out septic tanks one bucket at a time, and generally doing the best we could to not get in the way too much, or get talked to sternly by a nun for being too slow, incompetent, or inefficient.  It was not fun.  It was not sexy.  It was not even “missionary cool,” like working at the home for the dying, or with photogenic kids, or with crowds of needy people that you could tell others about and bask in their glow about how holy you were.  Instead, we were at a home called Shanti Bhivan (House of Peace) for mentally and physically disabled Nepalis.  It was simple, quiet, unassuming, and hidden.  It was hard.

I toughed it out for a few weeks.  After all, I was with a team of people, and to simply stop going would look bad.  I didn’t want others to think poorly of me.  I didn’t want them to see how unspiritual and shallow I truly was.  I didn’t want them to see me as I really was, so I pretended.  I pretended to be a servant, all the while grumbling inwardly about how I didn’t really want to be here, and how I really wanted to be somewhere else – somewhere more exciting, more dramatic, more more…  But inside, I was stuck.

Our regular schedule included getting up at 5am for an hour of silent, contemplative prayer.  The first month or so involved lots of falling asleep in the midst of it – only to be woken by a jab in the ribs from Julie, or a throat clearing from Ben or Kipp.  I’d return the favor when I noticed their breathing turn too deep or regular for being awake.  But as we stuck it out, I began to recognize something beautiful and holy about those quiet, dark, cold mornings we spent on the floor, wrapped in our woolen blankets, learning to quiet our hearts and inhabit the silence that was a doorway to God’s heart.

After prayers, it was time to go to work.  There were two bikes that we could use, and for the first few months that was my favorite part of the day: the 30 minute bike ride to work.  It felt like a video game as I dodged tuk-tuks and cows, taxis and pedestrians, buses and trucks, dogs and street vendors, weaving in and out of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s morning rush hour.  I felt alive – the adrenaline flowed – and it was exciting in a way that the rest of my days were not.

One morning as I was riding to work, I was feeling tired, grumpy, and just plain fed up.  We had been there for a couple of months, and whatever appeal had been present at the beginning was gone.  I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to serve.  I didn’t want to go to the stupid Missionaries of Charity home, run by the stupid nuns who would just make me feel bad for not giving more, doing more, being more…  I felt like I wasn’t enough.  And I wanted to do something more fun.  I wanted to stop and go to a cafe and get breakfast and coffee and spend time reading my novel.  I wanted to do what I wanted to do.  Who cared if I was on something called a “Servant Team.”  I was tired of serving.  I wanted out.

But…

At the same time, I was intensely self-conscious and worried about what others would think of me.  If I just didn’t go to work that morning, the nuns would ask about me.  Kipp would know that I didn’t show up.  I couldn’t lie about it.  They would catch me.  They would know the depths of my self-centeredness, my shallowness, my laziness and general lack of spirituality.  They would know that I wasn’t really like Jesus.  Not in any ways that mattered, anyway.  After all, I couldn’t even spend a measly five hours volunteering and working with the poor – the poor that I claimed to love, and had come to Nepal to serve.  However, I had found that loving “the poor” in reality was often difficult, challenging, and hard (just like anyone that you truly enter into relationship with.)

I didn’t want people to know who I really was, and how I really felt.  But I also didn’t want to go.  At that moment, I had a brilliant idea…  What if I got a flat tire?  If my bike tire went out, I’d have a ready made excuse.  I COULDN’T go in to work if my bike tire was flat.  I’d have to stop and get it fixed, and who KNOWS how long that would take.  It might take all day, if I could find someone slow enough…  and my problem would be solved.  It just might work…

I could explain to anyone who asked how I intended, nay, deeply WANTED to go to volunteer today.  I was trying to, but my cursed bike let me down by getting a flat tire, and what was I supposed to do?  …  Yes.  I would have the rewards of people looking to me and still admiring me for what I WOULD have done if only the mechanical bike hadn’t gotten in the way.  AND, I would be able to do what I really wanted to do, which was read my book over a pot of coffee and a set breakfast (with little delicious pastries) from the German place down the road.  It was a win-win.

However, there was only one slight problem with this plan.  My bike didn’t have a flat tire.

I didn’t let this stop me.  I still had a few miles to go before I got to work.  There was still time.  There was still hope that I COULD get a flat tire.  And if it needed a little help from me, then that could be arranged…

So, I started hitting potholes.  Every pothole, crack, piece of glass, sharp object, bump, or nail in the road…  If it was there, I hit it.  I started pushing hard on the front tire, trying to put more weight on it and get it to pop (or at least go flat) before I arrived.  As I drew closer and closer to Shanti Bhivan, I grew more and more nervous, and more and more frantic.  The tire wouldn’t pop.  No matter what I hit, no matter what I ran over, it wouldn’t go flat.

As I pulled up to the front gate, I was disgusted.  “Fine,” I remember saying to God.  “I’m here.  I’m not happy about it.  I don’t want to be here.  But since I’m here, whatever…  I’ll serve.  But don’t expect me to be happy about it…”

I grudgingly walked through the gates…  and as I fell into the rhythm of work, or buckets pulled and clothing washed, of meals served and wounds tended, something happened…  My anger – my bitterness – my frustration – it melted away.  I couldn’t hold on to it.  I tried.  But somehow, someone reached through and softened my heart.  Through the practice of obedience, I was transformed and made obedient.  Through the discipline of service – by simply showing up – my heart was renewed.  I left that afternoon rested, thankful, and blessed.  Joyful.  At peace.  All because the tire I had been hoping and praying would go flat held up.  All because my attempts at sabotage had failed.  All because God would not give up on me.  All because of grace…

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On the Mystery…


…Salvation as a gift given, not a bargain struck.  A father who does not trade forgiveness for good behavior, but who kisses the prodigal son before he gets his confession out of his mouth.  A vineyard owner who pays what he pleases, not what the laborers earn.  A shepherd who allows no sensible business considerations to keep him from leaving ninety-nine sheep in jeopardy to bring one to safety.  A wheat grower who runs his farm, not for profit, but for the sake of letting everything grow as it pleases till the end.  An Incarnate Word who won’t talk to Pilate; a Carpenter of Nazareth who saves the world by nailing down his own hands; a Risen Lord who runs everything by going away.  A God, in other words, who does all things well by doing practically nothing right, whose wisdom is foolishness, whose strength is weakness – who runs this whole operation by being no operator at all and who makes no deals because, in the high Mystery of his being, he’s got it made already…

…We call Christ’s dying and rising the Paschal Mystery, the Passover Mystery.  But seen in the light of a non-transactional view, this isn’t just typology anymore.  It’s a flat assertion that the Passover and the Resurrection are, beneath the surface, the same thing.  You don’t have to work up some system for getting the Israelites in the wilderness in touch with Christ: They already were, long before Jesus turned up on the scene.  And so were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  And so, to take it all the way, is everybody and everything that is.

Christ wins in every triumph and loses in every loss.  Christ dies when a chicken dies, and rises when an egg hatches.  He lies slain in the wreckage of all Aprils.  He weeps in the ruins of all springs.  This strange, savage, gorgeous world is the way it is because, incomprehensibly, that is his style.  The Gospel of the Incarnation is preached, not so that we can tell men that the world now means something it didn’t mean before, but so that they may finally learn what it has been about all along.  We proclaim Christ crucified, the formless, uncomely Rood Out Of A Dry Ground, in order to show men, at the undesired roots of their own being, the Incarnate Word who is already there, making Jerusalem to flourish.  We do not bring Jesus to people or people to Jesus.  We preach the Word who sends their roots rain, whether they hear or whether they forbear.

And so at last, the theological Rube Goldberg contraptions go into the trash can.  At Auschwitz and  Buchenwald, the Jews died in Christ and Christ in them.  No limbos.  No bookkeeping.  If the church never got around to them – or if it did, but put them off with rotten manners – Christ still draws all men to himself.  He descends into every hell.  The Incarnate Word preaches on all days, to all spirits, in all prisons.  The Good Shepherd has other sheep, and he flatly refuses to lose a single one.

Robert Farrar Capon ~ Hunting the Divine Fox

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Birthdaes and life

I was 20 when I saw American History X.  We watched it and spent the next few hours processing what we had just seen – a story of hope and tragedy – but what I didn’t tell anyone was the premonition that came over me as we watched the film.  And from the moment, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to die (probably violently) before I turned 30.  I didn’t really know what to do with that feeling, and I felt a little weird telling others about it, so I just put it on a shelf to come back to at a later date.  Over the next 10 years or so, the memory of that feeling would haunt me every now and then.  My mind knew there was nothing to it – but my heart wasn’t really sure.

Fast forward 11 years later – I am turning 31 today, and I am still here – and oh so thankful for the gift of life.

A friend posted 32 near-death experiences for his 32nd birthday…  Sadly, I don’t have that many – but the ones I do have remind me once again what a gift it is to be alive, and how I cannot take it for granted.

The first time I almost died I wasn’t even two years old.  My parents were travelling cross-country, and as they stopped on the median to check a map, I was pulled out of my car seat to spend some time on my mom’s lap.  Minutes after they placed me back in my car seat, as they prepared to get back on the road, they were rear-ended by a pick-up truck.  Their car was totalled.  My mom’s glasses, which were resting on her lap (the exact same place I had been minutes before), were ejected from the car and never found.  I didn’t even realize it.

Fast forward a few months later – Peru, a hotel, a room on the 8th floor.  My parents leave me in the custody of a the daughter of another missionary couple.  When they come back, they find me playing on the balcony, head between the bars, seeing if I can fit through.  I can, but they get to me in time to stop me from trying to climb down.

When I was about 9, we lived in a red zone (declared a no-go area by the US embassy) because of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement.  The judge down the street had a car bomb explode outside his home.  Every week bombings would take out electrical towers and power plants.  We got to be able to distinguish between the big fireworks and the bombs by sound alone.  Probably the most frightening thing were the extortion letters my parents got, threatening to kidnap and kill their children if they didn’t pay a ransom.

16 year old me was riding to the movies in a taxi in Lima with some friends of mine when a car swerved in front of us, slammed on the brakes, and out got 2 men with machine guns and two others holding pistols.  This was in the heydey of the MRTA (a different guerrilla movement that, just a few months before, had succeeded in storming the Japanese embassy, taking hundreds of people hostage, and holding them for months).  As they walked toward our car, we were sure we were going to die, but the armed men (we later found out they were police – not necessarily a good thing when the government killed as many people as the terrorists) pulled the driver out of the car next to us and waved us on.

There was the night we spent sleeping on the streets of Rome (a bad idea – even though the steps of the Pantheon will provide a dry place to sleep during a rain storm).

There were countless run-ins with the police, drug-dealers, gang members, boys and girls who lived on the street and could get high and violent.  There were the fights we broke up before they could really escalate – the times standing up to corrupt cops who were looking for ways to abuse their power.  There were the times of running from tear gas and the armored cars, ducking into cover with the neighbors as shots rang out, and deciding that maybe today wasn’t the best day to go to the beach.  There were multiple times being searched at gunpoint.  There was the time I was stuck outside the community I lived in, and my neighbors and I waited for a lull in the shooting so we could get home quickly before they started fighting again.  We made it.  All part and parcel of living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Even in February, I had my accident where I flipped my car, rolled it across the median, slid through three lanes of oncoming traffic, and came to a rest on the far median without a bruise or a scratch on me or anyone else.

And I know I am not unique.  Each person has 5, 10, 20 stories like this.  We have stories of how our lives could have ended, how fragile they are, and what a gift life truly is.  So today, on my birthdae, I’m going to rejoice.  I’m going to go sit outside on the porch, open up my Magnum ice cream bar, watch the moon float overhead, and celebrate life, for as long as I draw breath.  It’s worth celebrating.

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