Category Archives: Grace

The Faces across a Table

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There are few things more satisfying than scanning a dinner table or looking across my kitchen counter to see the faces of people I love.  Even when it includes those oddball characters no one quite knows what to do with (you know who you are).

You know the ones. They have a real knack for artfully–almost poetically–saying exactly the wrong thing.

Yeah, even them.  Maybe especially them.

In fact, those are the very people who usually make things more interesting. Like the other night when one of my son’s friends went off on a rant about anti-depressants. He said, “Not to be graphic” (so we braced ourselves), and then he went on to describe scientifically (and graphically) why antidepressants take all the umph out of orgasms.

Really?  Hmm.  Didn’t know that.  “Coffee anyone?”

Or there was the recent dinner when my nephew was home from college with two friends. I overheard one family member  talking about the politics of homosexuality with one of the friends. (To his credit, the young man maintained a remarkable poker face. Didn’t even flinch.)

I sat for a moment that night taking it all in. I scanned the table, watching everyone joke and gesticulate, while they stuffed faces full with pizza and somehow still managed to share stories, tall tales, gross exaggerations, good-natured ribbing, and belly laughs—all without bringing soda up their noses.

Somehow it was all so….glorious.  So wonderfully and beautifully imperfect. No matter what is being served or where, if I can look across a table or a room into the eyes of someone I love, it is all so very, very good.

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A Time to Walk Away

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cast away

Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor

Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” isn’t exactly a pensive song. At first glance, it seems like nothing more than a celebration of a perpetual drunk fest on some Mexican beach. But tucked in the lyrics is a slow, somewhat poignant, realization: As he considers his Margaritavile demise, the singer first claims it was “nobody’s fault,” then “…it could be my fault.” And finally, the epiphany, “It’s my own damn fault.”

Oi vay. I can relate this slow grind to humility, especially when it comes to knowing when to walk away. When I was a young teacher, I was surprised to so readily see among my colleagues the ones who had stayed too long. I remember telling Barry, “Please remind me to quit when I don’t like the kids anymore!”

But sometimes we are the last to see when it’s time to go, aren’t we? Ecclesiastes says, “There’s a time to keep and a time to cast away.”

Wisdom is about knowing when.

When is it right to let go of whatever we are holding onto? A job? A person? A dream? A grudge? A personal war?  I don’t always know, do you?

I do know this: Hang on too long, and the misery that ensues is often my own fault because I’m only hanging on out of fear, comfort…even laziness. I may even have legitimate grievances to pin my frustrations to, but the truth is that I have outstayed the grace I was given to deal with them. Without that grace, the weeds in any human interaction eventually wind round our necks and choke the living daylights out of us.

Knowing the “when” is hard, though.  I’m often too close, too tangled in the weeds to see. I do know this much. It’s time to walk away if–

1) My only reason for remaining involves fear, laziness, or the desire to be comfortable

2) My “round” self just no longer fits the ever-tightening square hole of my circumstances

3) I’ve made a god of the thing or person I’m clinging to–and I’m trying to squeeze life, or affirmation, or provision from it, when I should be trusting God for those things instead.  Ugh.

I’d love to know how others deal with this question, though. As you think about letting go, what determines your “when”?

Dealing with that “love your enemies” verse

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After Jesus tells his listeners (during the Sermon on the Mount) that those who struggle in life are the “blessed,” which really does seem like a strange blessing indeed, he gives them a huge word of encouragement: He tells them they are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.”

Mind you, he is speaking, here, to an oppressed people. Their land is occupied by a mighty and, often, cruel foreign empire.  Many of their own countrymen have ridden the coattails of Roman power right over their heads. Their own religious leaders offer little comfort, instead using oppressive legalism to exert their own power–only adding to the already overwhelming burden of Roman occupation. Jesus’ words must have been either encouraging or downright hard to believe.

I am the salt of the earth?  Really? I thought I was just dung under someone’s foot.

Just when the crowd might have been tempted to congratulation themselves (“He says we are the light of the world!) or see Jesus as siding with them against those nasty Romans, Pharisees, Scribes. and tax collectors, Jesus turns his challenge directly towards them.  He says they have to do an even better job than the Scribes and Pharisees, their own hyper-holy leaders, in being righteous.

What?! Isn’t this the guy who just said we are the light of the world. This is a such a downer message.

For at least 27 verses, Jesus goes on to talk about–what?  Political oppression? Hardships? Life’s difficulties?  No!  He talks about relationships. Relationships!  Is this guy serious?

He challenges his listeners to do a better job in loving others–and he has really weird ideas about who those “others” are. He talks about loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, giving up your right to retaliate, allowing people to take advantage of you, treating others the way we want to be treated.

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy. Photo by Vavva

It’s one thing to encourage people today to go the extra mile, smile when you’re down, or overlook insults. We live in a rich society. We have generous rights and legal recourse if we are harmed. But Jesus addresses crowd here whose sons or daughters could be, and often were, enslaved, killed, or imprisoned at a moment’s notice–and they could do nothing about it. These people had nothing close to the rights we know today, and many lived in or on the edge of poverty.  Yet Jesus has the gall to sit there and say it’s not good enough to love your friends and family.  Anyone can do that, Jesus says.  How about loving your enemy? How about loving someone who really doesn’t care about you?  How about loving someone who wishes you harm?

Is that even possible?

I won’t lie. It is totally impossible to me. If someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back.  If they hurt my kids–forget it! Mercy and grace may be in God’s nature, but it’s not always in mine. There are times when I just want justice–not mercy. And there are times when justice is the greater need. But even in oppression, Jesus does not let them, or us, off the hook.  Can oppressed people be guilty of sin? According to Jesus…absolutely. Had his listeners been given the power at that moment to overturn their enemies, would they have behaved with largesse and kindness and generosity towards their former oppressors?  Not likely. They would probably have given the Romans back, in spades, what the Romans had given to them.  And how, then, would they be any different from the Romans, their enemy? How are we?

Jesus doesn’t let us get away with simply exposing the sinfulness and unrighteousness of others. He challenges us to see and deal with our own. It starts with us. It always starts with us.  When we are incapable of love because we are hanging on to our right to retaliate, we must start and end with a dependence on God for the love and forgiveness we cannot give.

Grace Both Ways

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Give and Take

Photo by Bhagathkumar Bhagavathi

We are often inconsistent about grace, aren’t we? Think of those times when you, or someone you know, have been hurt by someone at work, or at church, or by a good friend.  Our righteous indignation kicks in at the injustice of it all. Where is the compassion, we wonder—where’s the grace?  the kindness?  We complain loudly about how we are treated—and then we tend to write the Offender off as persona non grata.

The Offender no longer exists.

Ironically, we withhold the very thing we wanted from the Offender.  We wanted grace. We wanted understanding. We wanted forgiveness when we screwed up.  We wanted kindness.  We didn’t get it.  So now, we are going to be certain that the Offender never gets it from us.  I hate to say it, but I see the worst of this in three groups:  Those who’ve been offended by judgmental parents, by a boss, or by a church.  The plaintiff, in each of these circumstances, becomes a “withholder.”  I’ve done it myself more than I care to admit.  It goes like this: You offend me.  I wanted grace or kindness.  I didn’t get it.  So now, I’m withholding mine from you. I’m taking all my toys and leaving.  I’m taking my grace. My kindness. My forgiveness. My love. You aren’t getting any of it because you are a jerk!  You don’t deserve it.

And when I do this…I become like the very person or situation that offended me in the first place.  Grace goes both ways. We want to receive grace, but sometimes we don’t. In those times, all we can do if we are to hang on to any shred of integrity is to offer grace. That is the nature of grace. It is undeserved. If we fail to do so, we simply become a different version of the Offender.