Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Unmerited Favor

Unmerited Favor is one of those "church" terms that sounds fancy but I don't know that I've ever really, truly, understood it.
Extravagant Grace is the title of a book I own (great book, little short devotional chapters from a variety of authors) but I have to say that other than a book title, it's not a concept I've really grasped.
Limitless Love, Boundless Gifts, etc, etc, all terms that we have used or heard used to describe God's feeling towards us, but for me personally, not something I've really ever had a good picture of, not something that I've experienced and thought, "ah ha, THIS is what it means.."  I mean of course I understand that while I was yet a sinner Christ died for me, etc, but to really own it... not really.

Until recently.

Have you ever been the recipient of a gift that you did nothing to earn or deserve?  Not something you could do for yourself?   Not something you will ever be in a position to repay?   Probably the closest I've ever come to this is the unconditional love I have for my children, but even that... yes, it is beautiful and a wonderful picture of God's love for us, etc. but it almost seems like it's cheating... it's built in, it is automatic, almost as though I can't help but love my children that deeply.  I didn't chose it, it just IS.

What I'm talking about is different.  Being offered a gift so ... extravagant, for lack of better word, being offered love that is so undeserved that it almost makes me feel odd to accept it, but knowing that to not accept it would be so incredibly foolish.  To know that if I take this gift, I can never repay it, never give the other party anything like it in return.  To know that nothing I've done, no service I've offered or friendship extended makes me "worthy" or deserving.  It's just there.  Given freely, no bond of blood or maternity, and all I have to do is say yes. If I say no, it is gone,  I can't do this for myself. The only way to benefit from this is to put aside my idea of needing to earn it, deserve it, or pay it back in some fashion, and simply accept it.

It is a humbling, almost scary thing to consider.

I know, you want to know what this gift is.  But that is not the purpose here, you see, what for me is The Gift that Makes the Gospel  Real, may be for you utterly commonplace.  The point is that for me, this is my need, my one thing that I utterly lack the power to do on my own. And someone else is doing it for me, freely.

To accept a gift that comes with no strings, no expectations, no preconceived notions, no way of earning or deserving, no way to merit this, no way to give it back, knowing that any feeble attempts to earn or pay it back will be futile; this is a difficult thing.

And yet I do accept. I take this free-fall into accepting a gift of love that is so big that it is almost overwhelming.  And as I accept, I feel like I'm seeing one of the most clear pictures of God's grace that I've ever seen.  I feel like I need to sit down and process this.  It is causing me to really look at my relationship with God.  Do I accept his gift of salvation for what it truly is, or am I still in some feeble way fooling myself into thinking that I can serve him enough to pay it back?  Am I as humbled and overwhelmed by the truth of the Gospel as I am about this gift from my human friends?
Lord, search my heart, know me.  And Thank You for loving me enough to not only give me salvation but to give me friends who serve me both physically and spiritually.

I'm getting it.
The unimaginable, unmerited grace of the Gospel, made real and brought home.
I'm overwhelmed.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fully Involved

I have a friend who is a constant joy and encouragement to me.  (No, she doesn't come clean my house or do my laundry, although, if someone feels led, I promise I will blog about you too!)  The thing that makes me eager to spend even a few minutes with this lovely lady is how full of joy she is about God's redemptive power.  It bubbles out of her even if you aren't talking about spiritual things, and when you are, it just overflows .
The awareness of just how much God has done in her life is an ever-present light that just surrounds her.
She isn't merely grateful for being saved; no, she relishes in the grace that redeemed her, reformed her, made her completely new and fresh and reborn in Him.  The transformation is truly a beautiful thing.  She has her own testimony to give and I look forward to the day when that is written up and shared, but for now, yes, she lived in a deep, dark place, a place of pain and hatred and hurt, a place that many of us loathe to even think about. That is all past and is so foreign to the bright and beautiful lady I know today that it is unimaginable.

So this brings me to what I want to share today. I ask in advance that you stay with me, I understand that some may be shocked or even offended by the very idea that I would say this out loud, but friends, I believe that the Lord gave it to me a few days ago and I've been thinking about it ever since.

We all know that Jesus Christ came to earth and suffered a horrible, torturous death on the cross to pay for our sins. He gave his life and spilled his blood for our salvation and transformation. It is this miracle that my friend  lives her life daily basking in the glory of.  And really, she needed it.  But me, why don't I find myself overwhelmed by this same grace, this same mercy, this same sacrifice?  Perhaps..., no, surely not. Surely none of us that have experienced God's saving grace would ever think that Jesus didn't need to go quite that far for us?
No. We would never say this, or even think it, but subconsciously, do we live it?  Are we under-whelmed by Jesus's death because maybe in our case a good beating would have done the trick?  After all, my sins are quite minor compared to others.  There really wasn't a lot of saving and redeeming to be done in my case. The whole blood-death-sacrifice seems a bit overkill.

When these thoughts first came to my mind and heart, my reaction was, "Lord! of course not! I'm very grateful for what you suffered for me, for your shed blood that paid for my salvation, for the old rugged cross that ...."  Yeah. I went there. I quoted hymns to God.
Gently he continued to speak to my heart. "I know you don't THINK it, but do you act it?  Is my sacrifice something you pull up to ponder at Easter?  I know you are overwhelmed with life and all the trials and challenges. I'm not asking for you to devote hours each day dancing before me with praise, but it would be nice if every once in a while you were lost in the sea of my grace and goodness, that it registered with you how fully involved I am in your salvation and redemption."

"Fully involved."  I hadn't thought about it like that before.  When God made the plan to save us, he didn't hold anything back. Jesus was fully involved. This wasn't a part time gig, it wasn't a sideline, it wasn't, "I'll take 33 years off from running the universe to hop down to earth and redeem those humans."  The decision to make this sacrifice, to put on humanity, to die, to face down sin and defeat Satan, this is something that forever altered eternity.

I don't ever want to live in a manner that even suggests that I do not need Jesus' full sacrifice. I don't want my heart-song to be half-hearted. The sin that bound me, that separated me from God, that made me unholy and unfit to stand before him is just as dirty, just as loathsome, just as painful as any other sin.  He took it all away, he removed the barrier that stood between my soul and God's holiness by nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14); it took the very same sacrifice, the same torturous death to redeem MY sinful soul as it does for anyone else's.

I have asked God to give me a new glimpse at where my heart would be without his salvation; I've asked him to quickly convict me should I ever cease to be as fully involved in my praise as he was in my redemption. I want to be so full of awareness of what he has done for me that it overflows, that it is contagious, that it draws people and reflects back to God. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mud Wrestlin' - The Competitive Woman

Two in a series of how women treat each other...and what to do about it. 

Competition. It's what makes the world go 'round...right?

I've never, ever, been at all interested in sports, or even competitive games, but I have to admit, I do have a streak that makes me want to make the highest score in the class, or at least the highest score possible. I truly don't mind if others share that score with me, just don't let anyone be higher than me. I remember crying once in high school over making a 98% on a final exam.  I would have rather made a 94% than come so close and still not achieve perfection, so yeah, the competition thing, apparently there is a speck of it even in little old me.

In many ways competition can be a good thing, causing us to strive to do our very best.  However, there is an uglier side to it and when paired with our own insecurities (and yes, we all have those as well), the outcome can get nasty.

We've all witnessed this.  Someone is the established queen o' the kitchen and someone new comes in sporting their fabulous recipes. Or perhaps they are a better piano player, or you've always directed the Christmas play and now the powers that be dared to give someone else a shot at it.   I don't need to give many examples, you know what I'm talking about.
Sometimes though it's not even that someone is actually better than we are, it's that we perceive them to be a threat.
We keep chickens.  Let me tell you a few things about hens. They are loud, they squawk, they announce with pride their own accomplishments (and there are few sounds more grating than a hen laying her egg), they can't keep their trap shut even when it would benefit them (give a hen a treat and she immediately has to spread the news. And no, I'm not giving them credit for wanting to share the treats, because they will attack anyone who gets too close, they just want to brag that they got a treat and you didn't.) You've heard of the expression, "the pecking order", oh yes, it's true.  A new bird doesn't have to show a threat, she merely has to show up and someone will perceive her as a threat. It may not be the top lady, but somewhere down the line, one girl will decide that this new chick is a problem and begin to persecute her.  What? you say this sounds familiar and you have never even seen a chicken?  Mmm hmm, there is a reason why a derogatory term for women is "hens."

We've seen it. We may have even done it.  Snide remarks from the sidelines. Rejoicing silently (or not so silently) when others fail. One-upping each other over anything... kids, crafts, cooking, singing. Slinging mud. It's a constant chorus of "anything you can do, I can do better..."

Oh sisters, it's ugly, and it's among us. But it has no place in ladies who are redeemed and filled with the Holy Spirit.  It's hurtful to our target and makes us appear weak and petty to those witnessing it.  It's unwholesome, unladylike, and ungodly.  Girls, we gots to get RID of it. Here are a few thoughts on how we can work on it.

1. Own it.  Even if you think that you are keeping this attitude pretty private, chances are that the longer you let it fester, the more it's going to come public, or may have already.  If you know that you have a "thing" with a particular lady, examine yourself!  "Oh it's just a personality clash, I don't truly dislike her!"  Hmm... Ask God to show you the deep parts of your heart. Ask a trusted sister to "get real" with you  and tell you if they see issues. Often this competitive spirit can be traced back to feelings of insecurity, the attacks are merely a symptom of other problems that need to be dealt with, but we can't take out our issues on others while we work through them either.

2. Confess it.  To God of course first, but really, if you have made any "zingers" to anyone else, you should apologize to them too.  How about your target?  This one can get tricky.  If the lady honestly has no idea that you have been gunning for her, it can be a wee bit disconcerting to have someone come up and say, "hey, I'm sorry that I've had a bad attitude toward  you, disliked you, and mocked you."   On the other hand, if she knows (and if you've had the attitude for any length of time, she does), you must apologize and ask forgiveness.  With an open heart ask God to show you exactly how much apologizing you need to do; this is also a  good place to seek counsel from someone.

3. Change it.  My personal church background seemed to have put a lot of  emphasis on praying about it and very little on actually doing something about it.  Please understand, I'm not knocking the idea of praying about it, and asking God for help (without him, it's just a self-help program),  but at some point we need to exercise self-control and simply rein it in.
Attitudes change from the inside. If possible, seek to truly become friends with her. If that isn't going to happen (not everyone is meant to be best friends) then at least look for opportunities  to (openly) admire her skills and truly appreciate how she is a benefit to your church or group.  Another thing is to pray for her.  I admit that at first it is just words, but there is something powerful in prayer and when you pray God's blessing on someone, after a while, a change comes over your own heart and you simply can't hate them any longer.

4. Accountability.  Is there someone who can  help you break this attitude and habit?  (do you see a theme here? accountability, it's a good thing.  perhaps a future post)  Best would be someone who sees you with her, but if not, then just someone who will ask you how it's going and encourage you along.

Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and Ephesians 4:32 teaches us to be kind and tenderhearted toward each other.  Jesus also said in John 13:35 that we will be known as his followers by the love we show each other.
Ask God to make these verses real to you, ask him to show you if there is other scriptures that would be meaningful to you on this topic, climb out of the mud and extend a hand of friendship.

This article was mostly written shortly after the last one, but I hesitated in posting it because I didn't think I had this issue and therefore wasn't suited to address it.  I'm chagrined to say that the Lord has shown me that indeed there is indeed a little bit of competitiveness in me.  Apparently I have this need to be the wittiest, cleverest person in the room. I am compelled to have the last word (and oh how my last word is amusing!). I even tried to explain to God that actually, this is ok, my friends LIKE it. However, he had the last word and asked me to consider situations in which there may be someone who is more reserved, perhaps it took a very real effort to even speak up, and instead of truly considering them, I used their statement as a springboard for my own witty repartee.  Ouch.  Lord help me to monitor my tongue, help me learn to be willing to let opportunities to show off slide on by so that others may be truly heard. I never want to crush the spirit of a shyer person who may have had a hard time speaking up in the first place. Temper my mouth, may I always consider others first. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Up On a Pedestal- The Unreachable Woman

This is the first in a short series of how women treat each other. I'll be thinking about what happens when there is too much admiration, next,  too much competition, and then finally, too much judgement. 

We have all been taught and admonished to not ignore the less popular,  the misfits,  the new person. We extend ourselves to make them feel welcome and may even pat ourselves on the back for our inclusiveness.

Today I want to talk about the girl on the other end of the spectrum  The one who through no fault of her own has been put in a a pedestal.  There she sits, admired by all, but befriended by few.  Hear me, I'm not talking about one who is stuck up or believes themselves to be above everyone, no, this girl is truly admired and looked up to; perhaps too far up to. I've known several ladies like this.  Every comment I have ever heard was spoken with sincerity and esteem,  "She is the best organizer, mom, teacher, cook, hostess...she's even slim. <insert wishful sigh> I don't know how she does it."
The result is that we look up to these ladies as a goal to aspire to, not a friend to have. I'm too messy for her to want me. I'll just grab another disheveled, disorganized, fast-food-feeding, temper-losing, (you know, LIKE ME) girl to be friends with, and maybe someday, clutching at each other for support, we can be something like Her.

I was recently at an event and struck up conversation with another lady. In the course of our talking, I began singing the praises of a specific group I used to belong to.  This lady had been a member at the same time, so I assumed she would have the same beatific memories I had.  Instead a look crossed her face and she asked, "You got all that from this group?"  Well of course I did! Didn't you?
No. No, she had not.  She was excited to join, open for friendship, not a  bit stand-offish, actively seeking (not just hoping for) relationship, but it just didn't seem to happen for her.  She even asked me why I though it might have happened (or didn't happen)  this way for her.

At the time I didn't have an answer; same group, same time, doing the same things, why do some come away with dear, life-long, friendships and others come away still longing?  After some considering, I think that at least part of the answer in her case may be that people assumed that she was so accomplished and so  popular that she didn't need them as a friend.  I know for certain that I have done this.  I'm good at some things and not good at some things and downright struggle with other things, and for the most part, I'm ok with that (or at least getting ok with it). I see in most of my friends that they also have strengths and weaknesses and that is a comforting thing.  Then I see ladies who just "have it all together" and I assume that they wouldn't need me or want me, that I have nothing to offer, so I don't even make an effort.

The truth is that no one has it all together to the point where they simply can't use another friend. I have an amusing memory of the time when the ice finally broke between myself and my friend G.  I had known her for quite some time and admired her.  She was good friends with several of my good friends, but I just wouldn't approach her... I  had her so far up on a pedestal that I wouldn't let myself get close.  One day we were working on a craft in a Ladies Group and making wreaths for our front doors.  Hers had great colors, a jaunty bow... and was stiff as a board. Flowers marching in strict order up both sides with the bow in the absolute bottom center.  She held it up and in a dismayed voice pronounced that it just wasn't RIGHT.  I went over and in a few moments added additional flowers, moved the bow to perch on the side and changed it from perfect symmetry to simply balanced.  All of a sudden it was cute instead of precise, and she was thrilled.  "HOW do you DO that?"   That was the beginning point, my perfectly precise friend G needed me, she NEEDED me to mess her up a bit.

We all have something to offer, even to those ladies who we admire too much to approach. Remembering my recent conversation,  I am a bit wistful now, thinking of the friendships that could have been forged, the blessings that could have been given and received. I'm going to send her a note today and admit that I've had her on a pedestal for too long, but that if she wants me, I will be her friend.