Several years ago, I wanted to go through a study on Agape Love, the blazing core of Christianity–but not a particular strength of mine!! And being an extroverted, sort of A type personality, I got permission from my church to organise a Bible Study on the topic under their auspices.
Now, like most everyone, I suppose, I do not like things I do to flop. And I sometimes go to far-fetched lengths to ensure they do not flop. So in organising the study, as when throwing a party, I heeded the internal tick-tock of fear…what if no one showed up?
So I invited, and I invited, and I emailed, and I telephoned… and too many accepted. There were over thirty people in my Bible study, which should have had twelve. Well, my ego was pleased with thirty, though I realized it would therefore be less participatory, less transparent, less transformative.
I looked at the list, and my eyes lingered, exasperated, on a particular name. It wasn’t someone I disliked–I wouldn’t have invited anyone I disliked–but it was someone I was neutral towards. So why had I invited her to my Bible study which I intended to prepare thoroughly; give 110%; pour myself out, body, mind, soul and spirit; teach everything I knew, and no doubt, use deeply personal stories and illustrations?
Fear, I realised. Fear that the Bible study would flop, and it would be one of those dismal things to which only five people show up, including the leader. Pride, for I would have felt shame if only five people showed up. I would have felt ungifted, unpopular, unimportant, insignificant, “nobody.” (I would perhaps be able to smile wryly, shrug and bear it now that I am safely middle-aged…but not then.)
So I invited and invited not because of the love of God overflowing from my heart, not because of a desire to bless people with the overflow of Biblical treasure which had blessed me, but out of pride, fear, shame.
I studied the list again, and I was sad. I had freaked out. One never thinks well or acts wisely when impelled by fear, the seizing up reptile brain.
I had started well. I wanted to study those concepts, and I thought I would study them more deeply if I were teaching them. But then, vanity crept in.
I looked out of my window at the slim fingernail of moon in a dark-sapphire sky. Mixed, mixed; light and darkness, all our motives. Mud and the breath of God, that is what we are, sometimes muddier, sometimes more spirit-filled.
* * *
Yeah, so I acted out of pride, fear and vanity and general freaking out. Not out of the centre of God’s will. Not abandoned to him. Those branches did not spring from the mighty trunk of God. How could I ask him to bless them?
“Oh Lord, oh Lord,” I cried, “I’ve done this all wrong. Look at my silliness and vanity. Can you redeem this?”
* * *
And then I laughed.
And what made me think that grace, and the love of God, and the goodness of God, were only for the times when I was all perfect? That I needed to be perfect to be a child of God, entitled to the goodness of his household?
And the Bible, that document I loved to teach? From first to last, it is the story of God stepping in when we have messed everything up. We eat the only dangerous fruit; we are murderous towards our brothers; we diverge from the beautiful way things could have been in our marriages, in our parenting, in our friendships, in our physical health, in our homes and gardens…
And so often God steps in and surprises everyone, creates a bittersweet yet beautiful thing out of our messes.
The story of lives is not perfect, as it might have been were we perfect people in a perfect world. But neither is it dark as when a fractious child mixes together all the bright colours in her paint-box, reducing the glory to blackness.
Yes, our lives are not the original design—beauty. But neither are they things of entropy and chaos, as would happen if there were no grace, if we consistently reaped what we sowed.
What happens is redemption. God takes our mistakes, our shattered shards, and creates a thing of beauty, windows of stained glass though which his light shines.
* * *
When you are certain you’ve married the wrong person, all is not lost, for you or them.
The Bible has an Open Sesame phrase which pops up when all is dark and hopeless and everything is chaotic and disintegrating.
Failure seems certain. The future looks bleak. We are all out of options.
You twist your spouse’s arm to go on a holiday which is too expensive, when you should have been working hard, making money, not spending it. Why should grace strike you on that holiday? But it does.
When you fear that all your parenting mistakes might add up, and your child may not fulfil her academic potential,
but God, but God…
and that child is now an undergraduate at Oxford University reading Theology.
You let money slip through your fingers in the seven years of plenty, and did not save enough, and now have to work so hard all over again…
How foolish, so foolish, but the story is not yet over, grace strikes you in this period of hard work; your creativity burgeons, and ironically through this spurt of work, you end up with a wee bit more prosperity than if you had never blown your windfalls and then had to refill your barns.
Ah, unfair, you really did not deserve grace, you prodigal…
When you think of all the time you’ve lost: to arguments, quarrels and conflict, to depression and sluggishness, to burnouts following overwork, and you fear you will never achieve your dreams, grace steps in.
Your mind is burnt out; our nervous system is shot; your body is not as healthy as it was…
You are in no position to do anything by strength, resolve or hard work…
And here you are, forced to rely on a force beyond yourself…
Just the right candidate for grace, in precisely the right place to receive it..
Amazing grace, rescuing what you set out to do with pride, fear and petrified rabbit brain, stepping in, as Jesus told us the Holy Spirit steps in on request, intervening, turning things around