grace

The 300th: An Ode to Failure

This is my 300th blog post.

Three hundred separate times, I’ve sat down and written a thing and posted it on the internet. Sometimes they were words I couldn’t keep in for a moment longer so that they spilled out in an almost violent rush. Sometimes they were words I spent weeks weighing and measuring, trying to say something true, but in the most careful way I could. And sometimes they were words without any great weight behind them – snapshots of the moments that make up my days.

Today is also my 31st birthday. I have so many things to be thankful for in my life. Without being too mushy, I will just say that I am deeply loved by some of the most wonderful people on this planet and they do an amazing job of showing me. That is all I could ever ask for. But this post isn’t about how lovely my life is.

It’s about failure.

In reflecting on the last year, I’ve had many wonderful and meaningful experiences, but I’ve also failed in a lot of ways. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to project an image of perfection here. I’ve been honest about struggles and difficulties. But I also don’t know that I’ve talked much about real failure–as in the things that are entirely my fault and entirely within my control.

There are the small things:

  • I accidentally betrayed a confidence. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I should have been thoughtful enough to avoid the topic entirely instead of assuming what the other person already knew. Nothing catastrophic has come of it, but I still should have kept my mouth closed.
  • I completely forgot to check in on a friend who I knew was having an important appointment. I genuinely wanted to know the outcome, but I failed to follow up with her which communicated that I didn’t really care.
  • We have a four-cup coffee maker (which in my house is actually a two-cup coffee maker) and a few days ago I heard Jonathan waking up, so I ran to the kitchen and quickly poured the last cup of coffee into my mug before he came out so that I wouldn’t have to wait 5 minutes for a new pot to brew.

And there are the bigger things:

  • I recently shouted at a family member in moment of self-righteous fury that was both ungracious and unnecessary. Also, I am not a shouter. A very animated talker, yes. But not a shouter.
  • I kept a secret from my husband for the better part of a year because I was so ashamed of it. Me. Someone who would identify authenticity as one of my core life values. I kept a secret from the person I am closest to in the world. Like a lying lier who lies. This was just one factor that led to a serious and scary breakdown in my marriage, something I always thought was too rock solid to be shaken.
  • I quit on an important project that I care deeply about and want to support, but simply couldn’t get my shiz together enough to participate in fully.
  • A few weeks ago, I had a conversation where I speculated on someone else’s sexuality. Even though I sincerely believe this to be an unkind and above all unnecessary thing to do, I did it.
  • I am really struggling with resentment towards someone in my life. It has nothing to do with them. It is entirely my problem. But at least 50% of the time, I want to punch them in the face for daring to exist.
  • I set out to write a book a long time ago, but I do not have the discipline or the work ethic or the perseverance to see it through. Every time I try again, I end up quitting.

I promise, there is a point to all of this. The thing I’ve learned the most over the past year is that there is no such thing as a failure-free life. As a recovering perfectionist, this is hard for me to accept. I am programmed to believe I should always be making progress. I like to think I can outgrow failure, or at the very least, that I can learn not fail at the same thing twice. Experience says otherwise.

Failure is inevitable, but it’s not the end. It’s an opportunity to identify my priorities and to really ask myself if my actions reflect my goals, my values, and the kind of person I want to be. It is humbling to admit to being wrong and to ask for forgiveness. And it is beautiful to receive forgiveness from others and from myself.

The other great gift I’ve received from all of my failures is that, in my better moments, it has given me greater compassion towards others. Understanding my own inability to stop failing makes it easier to forgive other people’s failures too. It’s so much easier to live believing that those around me are doing the best they can, but, despite our best efforts, we all still fail sometimes.  We all need the grace of God, myself as much as anyone.

In the next year, I hope that I will grow as someone who is kind and genuine and generous and gracious. I want to invest more in my writing with the goal of one day being self-employed as a writer. I want to make peace with my body and manage my mental health better. I want to love the people in my life well. I want to explore more of the world and to have new adventures, but also do a better job of appreciating all there is to explore and appreciate in my everyday life.

I will probably (definitely) fail in both small and spectacular ways at all of these things, so along with all of these hopes, I am thankful to be in a place in my life where I feel secure enough to fail. My worth and my worthiness are not dependent on my successes or failures. I only need to be humble enough to admit my failures, to ask for forgiveness where necessary, and to have the courage to try again.

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Featured Image via Ted.com

 

 

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Things I’m Loving About Being Anglican-ish

Since moving to South Carolina, Jonathan and I have been attending a small Anglican church. We are new to Anglicanism – the rhythms of the liturgy, the symbolism of the vestments, the movements and motions of the Eucharist. While I grew up with a working knowledge of the Catholic Mass, neither of us has ever consistently attended a liturgical church. Over the past few years we have both, for our own reasons, become more and more curious about it.

Jonathan and I come from wildly different church backgrounds – he was raised in a modest-sized, traditional Presbyterian church with a highly educated congregation. I was raised in a large, non-denominational charismatic church that drew people in with exciting music and impressive multimedia presentations. I would have characterized his church as dry and stodgy. He would have characterized mine as hyper-emotional and showy. In the first few years we were first married, we tried to find compromise in what we were looking for in a church – this became more and more complicated as time went on and both of us experienced significant changes in our beliefs. Being in a tradition that is new to both of us feels like a fresh start.

In Korea we visited a very small Anglican church with an English service. While I felt indifferent towards the service itself, I found myself very turned off by the attitude of some of the congregation members. Several of them were former evangelicals who felt they had found something far superior in the Anglican Church. They spoke of their former churches (or even the evangelical church as a whole) with scorn. I’m no champion of evangelical Christianity and I have a whole host of problems with the evangelical subculture, but I’m also deeply sensitive to the arrogance of people who dismiss other denominations’ sincere beliefs simply because they disagree. Just because I have been hurt or disappointed or disenchanted with evangelical Christianity doesn’t mean that God is not at work in those churches or that people who attend those churches aren’t able to have authentic, meaningful faith experiences. In the same way that I have always pushed back against evangelical criticism of Catholicism or of Protestant liturgical traditions, I reject the idea that the only right or good faith tradition is the one I’ve chosen.

Our foray into Anglicanism isn’t about rebelling against the way we were raised, bashing evangelicalism, or trying something new and trendy. It is our way of genuinely seeking to experience God in a new way and to understand our faith differently. I’ve been surprised by the things I’m coming to love about our Anglican church.

Participation is Required: One of the biggest differences in a liturgical service versus a typical evangelical service is that the congregation is required to participate. In an evangelical service you typically sing together for 20 minutes, then sit for 40 minutes and listen to a sermon, sing another song, and leave. In a liturgical service the congregation is required to respond at various intervals, to rise, to sit, to kneel, to speak. I understand that this could become very routine and lose its meaning over time, but for someone new to the tradition, it’s engaging in a way that my previous church experiences were not.

Words Carry Weight: Because the liturgy is scripted, the words have been weighed and measured and written just so. Not one is out of place and not one is without meaning. These are words that have been handed down for generations and they carry with them the weight of centuries of church history.

We are Connected to a Larger Body: Along with this sense of tradition comes a sense of rootedness, and of belonging in the larger body of the church in the world today as well as throughout history. We are not an individual congregation of people doing our own things. We are fundamentally connected to a group of people who are all reading the same passages and speaking the same words on the same day all across the world. There is something powerful about that.

The Eucharist is Central: Unlike most churches I’ve attended where the Eucharist (“Communion”) is a tangential part of the service and is added onto the end once a month or so, the Anglican service revolves around the Eucharist. I’m used to churches where sermons take up the bulk of the service – usually 30 or 40 minutes. In the Anglican Church (and other liturgical churches) the homily is quite short – 10 or 15 minutes – because the real service is building towards the Eucharist. Celebrating the Eucharist starts with corporate prayers of confession and moves into a holy celebration of grace.

Posture Matters: I didn’t grow up kneeling in church. To be honest, kneeling was something we associated with mass, which was (I’m sorry to say) something we frowned upon. But now I find it meaningful to engage my body. For faith to be something I do in the flesh and not just something I say with my mouth or feel in my heart. As my friend Steph writes, “Sometimes to learn a truth so deep in your soul that it changes the way you think, you have to actually do something with your body first.”

The most common question we’ve been asked from friends and relatives is, “Isn’t the liturgy boring? Don’t you feel disengaged when you repeat the same things over and over?” And my answer is simply, “No.”

It’s just as easy for me to disengage while listening to a 3-point sermon or singing a song with a repetitive chorus as it is while saying the Lord’s Prayer. I get out of it what I’m willing to put into it. Perhaps some day I won’t need to hear words like these every week:

“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”

But for now, those words are wearing grooves on my heart. Every week they cut a little deeper and sink down a little further into my soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Saving My Life Right Now: Update

Back in February I wrote a post called “What’s Saving My Life Right Now.” This question comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. Taylor tells the story of a time when she was asked to speak on this topic. At first it seemed like an unusual thing for a priest-turned-professor to speak about, but as she composed her speech, she realized it was powerful to reflect on the graces of a particular season. She made a note to ask herself this question from time to time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things in my life that are hard: missing Korea, experiencing constant rejection on the job front, continuing to struggle with a chronic ear infection I’ve had since July, having to pack up and move (again!) in a few weeks, the return of my panic attacks, and now this huge natural disaster in my new city.

I would be quick to extend compassion and grace to anyone else in this situation, but I find that It’s difficult for me to give myself that same measure of grace. I feel that it is not OK that I haven’t figured out a stable job situation, that I can’t get over this ear infection (which is costing a small fortune in doctor’s bills), that some days I am utterly overwhelmed by daily life when I am so very fortunate compared to many. Life is short and precious and I don’t want to spend mine feeling overwhelmed and hopeless when there is so much beauty I could be enjoying. There is a disconnect between the life I want to lead and the life I find myself living.

I wrote recently about my experience with the Lord’s Prayer — about asking for daily bread and receiving manna just for one day. Two days ago, manna came in the form of a letter from a reader named Steph who just moved to the middle-of-nowhere Texas after several years in South Africa. In so many ways, we are leading parallel lives. Like me, she moved to the US for her husband to go to graduate school. Like me, she is having trouble acclimating. Like me, she is unsuccessfully looking for a job that won’t kill her soul. Basically, we’re the same person. But in her letter she reminded me of the value of focusing on the things she loves about where she is and what she’s doing. She reminded me of some of the things that I love about being back in America. Her letter inspired me to do an update on what’s saving my life right now.

Here’s my list. Leave me a comment about what’s saving your life right now. I’m a collector of ordinary grace.

  • The library. The public library system in Columbia rocks my socks. It’s similar to Raleigh’s library system in which there are many smaller branches scattered around the county, but the full collection is extensive. You can easily request any book you are interested in and have it delivered to your closest branch so you don’t have to drive all over town to get a particular book. There is also an extensive collection of audiobooks (which I love listening to when I’m spending time in the car running errands) and dvds (including full seasons of TV shows). And it is all free!!!!

  • My bathtub. After two years of showering in a wet room where my shower head was connected to my sink, I am grateful for both a separate shower with a curtain and especially for a tub where I can sit with a book and relax.
    bubble bath
  • Fall candles. In the last year or so I’ve really gotten into scents, both in terms of perfumes and house scents. In my opinion, fall candles are the best of all the candles. My favorites right now are Leaves, Pumpkin Pie, and Marshmallow Fireside from Bath and Body Works and my Tobacco Vanilla one from Paddywax.
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  • My cats. I’d forgotten how much joy those little jerks bring to my life. Even when their demands for attention disrupt my day, I can’t help loving those warm little bodies curled up against me and t their ability to make a game out of anything, like systematically pushing things off the counter or stealing twist ties from the kitchen and later drowning them in their water bowl so they are good and dead.

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    If you try to take this twist tie, I will murder you in your sleep.

  • Friends. Being in Columbia has allowed us to see many of our friends more often than we did in Korea, but even more often than we did before in America. We’ve seen our good friends in Charlotte three times in the two months we’ve been here. I’ve seen all of my college roommates twice, my best friend from childhood once, and I’ll see another of my best friends from home this coming weekend. I’ve also started to make new friends in Columbia through my friend Lorien’s Bible study, through the church we’ve been attending, and through Jonathan’s program. These friendships are gifts and they make life brighter.
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Everyone should have friends to go to IKEA with.

God’s Most Favorite Child: Thoughts on Grace, Provision, and God’s Economy

For as long as I can remember my mother has possessed an uncanny ability to snag the very front parking spot in whatever parking lot she happens to be in. Not like, near the front. The very first available spot. The one that’s practically inside of the store and is also under the only shade tree in the lot. “I am God’s most favorite child!” she would spout in triumph, gliding into that parking spot like it was a front-row seat at the Super bowl.

I love my mother for this. For the way she taught me to see the fingerprints of God in something as ordinary as a parking spot.

Of course, she wasn’t trying to make some deep theological statement here. I don’t think she believed we could measure God’s favor by the way he doled out parking spots. There was no assumption that God gave the choice spots a few of his favorites while the less favorite were relegated to the back of the lot and the really awful people had to park across the street. She simply saw a good thing and let it point her, and all of us, straight to God.

Over the past few months as we’ve moved steadily towards the end of our time in Korea and the beginning of a new chapter in South Carolina, I have struggled with anxiety. I have struggled to believe that everything would work out. That I could trust God to provide a job with sufficient income, a place to live, vehicles to drive, new friends and community.

Even as the pieces began to fall into place I continued to Children-of-Israel the situation. Remember the Israelites in the desert? God delivered those dummies out of slavery by parting a sea and they were like, “Did you bring us here to starve?!” and then he sent them MANNA FROM HEAVEN and they were like, “Ugh. Did you bring us here to die of boredom from eating the same food over and over?”

I like to make fun of them because I see myself in them so much. My whining skills are top-notch. (My husband says he shudders to think that our children will inherit that from me). So even as God has opened doors and provided for us over and over again, I’ve continued to come up with new insurmountable obstacles to complain about. And God, in spite of my grumbling and in spite of my disbelief, has continued to provide.

I want to share the story of how God is providing for us. I want to give credit where credit is due. But in the past few years I’ve become more concerned with right theology when it comes to things like God’s blessings. I think “blessed” is one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the Christian vocabulary (but more on that another time). In particular, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that good things in my life are a sign of favor or blessing. I believe that all good things in the world come from God, but if I say that the good things in my life are from God’s favor or blessings, what does that mean for people who aren’t experiencing good things?

I know there are several of you who are in a similar situation to mine right now – preparing for a big move or a big life change and experiencing a lot of anxiety about it. I would never want to imply that things are falling into place for us because God is blessing us, but if they aren’t falling into place for you it’s because God is choosing not to bless you. I don’t believe that’s true.

I want to share how God is providing for us. If you are in a season where you aren’t seeing things work out and you feel anxious, I hope you can be encouraged by this story rather than discouraged. A parent doesn’t always give a child everything they want in the moment that they want it, but that doesn’t mean the parent doesn’t love that child or is no longer present with that child. So with that in mind, here’s our story.

The first major provision came in cars. We sold both of our old beaters before moving to Korea and have no vehicles. Jonathan’s grandmother recently decided to give up driving and offered to sell us her car inexpensively. And then my dad told us that he was planning to get rid of his big vehicle (a Tahoe) but that the trade-in value is minimal even though it’s not that old, because it has high mileage. He offered to donate it to us which means a tax break for him and a free car for us. Grace.

Next we were stressed about finding a place to live. We’re in a unique situation trying to “view” places and apply to rent them from another country. Imagine being a landlord and getting an email saying, “We live in South Korea and we don’t have jobs in America so we can’t prove our income, and our current landlord only speaks Korean so he can’t give you a reference, but we’re really great, I promise!” Not surprisingly, we weren’t getting lots of positive responses.

And then something amazing happened. I have an old family friend living in Columbia – our families were friends when I was a kid and I was friends with her little sister, but we haven’t seen them in 15 years or more. But I got in touch with her to ask about Columbia stuff and she volunteered to go look at places for us. At first I felt bad asking that of someone I didn’t know that well, but she was so kind and enthusiastic about it that we quickly gave in and accepted some amazing help. Guys. Lorien is the bomb.com. Like the actual bomb.com. She arranged viewings, talked to landlords, went to places, took pictures, made videos, found new listings for us, etc.

We signed a lease on a condo by the end of the week. Initially we really wanted a house for the charm factor, but God provided a beautiful condo that’s going to be awesome. It’s the most spacious and nicest place we’ve ever rented with a kitchen that makes me swoon. It’s comfortably within our budget and it is less than a mile from Lorien’s house which also helps put us at ease about our concern for friends and community. Grace.

While I still don’t have a full-time job lined up, I have been wishfully thinking that I’d like to work part-time and do freelancing/work-remotely things part-time so I have a more flexible schedule. As of right now I have two long-term freelance writing contracts and one more in the works. All three of these contracts have come through friends or other old connections that have randomly resurfaced. Grace.

When I look back at each of these graces, I can see God’s hand and his provision, and I realized that my mother was right. She is God’s most favorite child. And so am I. And so are you. And so is my frustrating coworker. And so is my most disrespectful student. And so is your Mother-in-Law.

God’s economy is not finite. Lavishing love on me doesn’t mean he has any less to give to you. It is the one economy in which all of our being of equal worth doesn’t diminish our value. And that is a divine, unearned, and irresistible grace.

I hope this can be an encouragement to you, wherever you are in your life, especially if you are like me and can always find something to stress out about. Take a breath and look for the places where God has stepped in, even when it didn’t look the way you wanted it to. Often you can find him in unexpected places if you only choose to look.

Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: I Choose Life

Today’s Thankful Thursday post comes from Crystal Tripp, a woman whose inner grace and humility seems to shine through everything she writes. I am honored to share this lovely reflection on what it means to choose gratitude.

I Choose Life

The obligatory Sunday visits completed-cards have been opened, gushed over, and filed away for safe-keeping. The flowers have withered. Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. Before long, the grills will be fired up & the ties will be retired to the back of the closet after their one time mandatory display around the necks of our fathers. Father’s Day will soon be a memory. These rituals play out in most homes across America and love is expressed whether true or feigned. I personally do not particularly care for these Sunday ceremonies as I believe the two people given the designation of my mother and father have long since let me down. As He is faithful to do, while typing that hostile statement, my heavenly Father speaks to me in that ever-present, still, small voice – reminding me that He has provided. I have not been forgotten.

I often fall into the trap of discontent, thus allowing the seeds of bitterness to sprout which subsequently leads to a failure to live – essentially death. I am frequently reminded, like so many other things, gratitude is a choice. This choice (that I have to make on a minute-by-minute basis) has nothing to do with my biological parents (or anyone else for that matter) or even my particular life situation…it’s about me! In the middle of a seemingly ordinary life filled with mountains and valleys, I choose gratitude. I have countless things to be thankful for, too numerous to discuss here but in this season where moms & dads are celebrated, I choose to honor those men and women God placed in my life that have love for me beyond my comprehension. I know that my omniscient Creator hand-picked all of these people (including my biological parents) just for me – each with a unique purpose like a tapestry with bright and dark colors included to create the most beautiful picture. I am grateful that His thoughts are not my thoughts because I don’t always know or understand His plan.

Father, I know so many times I come to You with an obnoxious list of wants & desires. I dare not say needs because I know You have already provided for my every need. Forgive me for failing to always realize that You are the Provider and You have not forgotten this child despite my ever-wandering heart. As Your word says, Your grace is sufficient for me. Lord, You have gifted me with a multitude of mothers and fathers in my life – most of whom would willingly take me in as their own. These dear hearts often don’t understand the choices I make, but they love me just the same. These beautiful men and women have mirrored the love of Christ – accepted and even forgiven my faults, cheered me on during personal struggles, demonstrating love for me that cannot be denied. Some are young and some are old. I am grateful for all of these-some have shared their parents with me, never fearing that the love shown for me would detract from their own supply; the many who have served as mentors when I was wandering; and the few that have allowed me to perform some of these same duties for them. Father, I thank You that all of these people have taught me Your promises, corrected me when I erred, encouraged me when I hurt, & demonstrated for me what it means to love. There are specific memories I’d like to thank You for – I’m sure I will fail to mention them all but Father, please know, I am grateful for Your divine hand of care. I can still remember sitting on the front porch with the two ‘seasoned’ ladies next door as a small child. Never once did they grow tired of my presence and endless questions or ask why I wasn’t playing with children my own age – they frequently allowed me to pick the blooms from the flowers they had nurtured for years. They accepted those plundered petals as if they weren’t treasures that belonged to them anyway. My heart warms as I remember their kind eyes and the comfort of their pats on the head. Once again, Lord, I thank You for them. You also provided me with a priceless 4th grade teacher – she never questioned why I arrived at school at such an early hour and was always glued to her side. She bought all the useless items I was trying to sell and placed them on her shelf as if they were her most prized possessions. I don’t know if she was aware of the life-long impact she would have on my heart – now she is with You and I can’t tell her myself. Will you tell her for me? I have precious friends and their dear parents – essentially relatives who in a world of ‘trying to be good enough’ & feeling ‘the need to explain’ give a quiet acceptance, never expecting anything in return. Lord, I thank You for their hearts and am grateful that DNA is not the only way to be a family. I will never be able to adequately express the gratitude I feel for those who love me so I’d just like to say thank You-Your grace is unspeakable. Amen

Wisdom has taught me that a life without gratitude is not worth living. That isn’t to say I am thankful for every situation and never express sadness or fear but focusing on my blessings allows me to keep it in perspective. I choose gratitude…I choose life.

And from His fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:16 ESV

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

– Thornton Wilder

About the Author: I’m a simple woman leading a complicated life but am maintained by the unspeakable grace of a loving God as I struggle to care for an aging ad difficult mother..  I have found that He is teaching me profound lessons through ordinary, everyday things.  In addition to my love for writing, I enjoy reading, gardening, & Cardinals’ baseball (GO CARDS!) When I can find the time for it I blog over at diamondonashelf.wordpress.com

Wholeheartedness: Practicing Self-Compassion When I Feel Like I’m Failing

Today I feel like I’m failing at life.

I’m not a very “together” person and honestly, I’ve never tried to pretend that I am. I don’t have a problem admitting that I mess things up sometimes. But lately it’s felt like all the time.

There are dozens of things I know I’m not very good at. I don’t like failing at those things, but in a way, my expectations of myself aren’t very high. I’m prepared to deal with these failures. It’s so much more discouraging to find you’ve failed at something you like to think you’re good at. And I’ve been failing like a boss.

You know how sometimes you pray for patience and then God gives you lots of trying circumstances as opportunities for you to practice? And (if you’re like me) you’re like, “Yeah, not cool, God. Not what I meant.” I feel like that’s what’s happened to me lately.

At the beginning of the year I said, “Ok, God, I want this year to be about learning wholeheartedness. I want to live with intention, to connect, to be compassionate, and to live a life that isn’t ruled by shame.” And I feel like God said, “Ok, well here’s some anxiety, and here’s some loneliness, and here’s a heaping spoonful of shame. Go ahead and practice wholeheartedness. Sucker.”

Yeah…Thanks, but no thanks.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience.” This is the ability to accept that you’ve made a mistake without letting it affect your sense of worthiness. It’s the ability to lean into those feelings of vulnerability and silence what Brown calls your “shame gremlins” by practicing self- compassion. This is how we can admit to our mistakes and learn from them without letting our mistakes define us.

I have been lonely lately. Not, “I have no one to hang out with” lonely. More like I don’t feel a strong sense of connectedness and belonging. This has made me self-focused and self-centered. I’ve spent more time feeling sorry for myself, thinking about what I wish I was getting from others instead of about what I could be giving. And this has led to some pretty epic fails on my part.

My shame gremlin sounds like a meaner version of Mushu from Mulan. (Hashtag Disney4Eva). “Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family. Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow…” except more like, “This is why you’re lonely. Because you don’t deserve love and belonging. Because you suck.”

Dishonor

Yesterday I let my shame gremlin overwhelm me. It was one of those days when I went to bed at 8:00 simply because I couldn’t bear being conscious any longer. I woke up this morning feeling about the same and frankly, I don’t feel much better now, but I’m going to try to practice shame resilience. And I’m going to start by extending grace.

The thing about grace is, it’s always there for me if I just let myself receive it. The only thing standing between me and grace is my shame. I inked this word, “GRACE,” onto my body because I wanted it to mark me, but I still have trouble letting it pierce my heart.

When you’re not very good at something, the only way to get better is by practicing. So I’m practicing. I’m practicing extending grace. I’m saying, “It’s OK that you really messed up, here. You are already forgiven. You don’t have to beat yourself up about it. You can grow and you can learn from it. This does not affect your value or your worth.”

I’m still feeling pretty crappy. But that gremlin sounds a little quieter now. He’s still talking, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen.

Getting Pumped for Judgment Day: From Fundamentalist Fear to Extraordinary Grace

If I had to choose a least favorite hymn, it would probably be “It Is Well With My Soul.”

As a child, I would sometimes sing this song at school or at a summer camp at the Baptist church. My understanding of this song was that lots and lots of bad things will probably happen to you, but you should still be glad as long as your soul is OK. Since this song reads like a list of awful things (sorrows like sea billows, Satan buffeting, etc.) I also interpreted that last verse “the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend” as a bad thing. After all, the songwriter said, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”

Although I understand the theology of this song better now, I’ve never been able to shake to connotations of my childhood. Whenever I hear it, I am gripped with a sense of sorrow and of fear.

When I was a child I believed in Christ’s return the way I believed in the rising sun. I took for granted that it would happen. I expected it at every moment. Whenever  the sun burst through the clouds after an afternoon storm I would turn my face to the sky, heart racing, wondering, “Is this it? Is He coming now, riding on those clouds, shining like the sun?” and I would be filled with fear.

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In elementary school chapel I sat with my classmates in my scratchy plaid jumper and white oxford shirt and listened to our principal explaining judgment day. On that day, she said, all of our worst sins, even the ones we thought no one knew about, would be displayed in front of the whole world. For people who weren’t believers, this would be a horrible day, but for Christians, this would be a great day because after the whole world had watched that movie reel of our very worst moments, Jesus would step forward and erase the tape.

These words were meant to encourage belief, but they filled me with terror. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick while I imagined everyone I knew watching a video of my sins. I wasn’t comforted by Jesus erasing the tape. I was too busy panicking about everyone knowing I peeked at my spelling book for just a minute during the last test. And even at that young age, my fear worried me. Did this mean I wasn’t really a Christian? If this was meant to be a great day for Christians, then why was I so afraid of it? Shame pounded in my temples as I sent up fervent prayers to combat those of generations of saints, “Please, Jesus, won’t you tarry just a little longer?” I pleaded.

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When I was in jr. high and high school I encountered a new theology of judgment. Judgment, I heard, was for the wicked, not for those favored of the Lord. When Christ returned in all of his glory, he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous like grain from chaff or sheep from goats. We need only worry that we were counted among the righteous.

On the surface this was comforting since Christ was my salvation. But over time, righteousness became equated with our good works. It was Christ’s righteousness that counted, but the only evidence of that was my actions. There were a dozen interwoven reasons why I was a perfectionist, but on a spiritual level, it was because I feared judgment – first and foremost from my church community and eventually from Christ himself.

I was a model child. I had perfect grades. I helped around the house. I babysat my sisters. I didn’t listen to secular music and I didn’t watch PG-13 movies. I never smoked, I never drank, I never even held hands with a boy. I didn’t even have a curfew to break because I was never out late enough to warrant one. I served in the youth group. At sixteen I was in charge of a whole cabin of girls at church camp who were only a few years younger than me. I played violin for the worship band. I ran the school’s mission team doing local and international outreaches. I can’t remember a single time that outright disobeyed my parents.

And yet, I was wracked with guilt for all the ways I failed. When I was sarcastic, when I used a disrespectful tone with my parents, when I was impatient with my sisters, when I lied because I was afraid of getting in trouble, when I got in a car accident, when I said mean things to make people laugh, when I tried to make myself feel smarter by making others feel dumb.

With a theology of judgment where God was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and my actions would determine which character I ended up with, how could I possibly think about judgment without fear? How could I ever be good enough to feel secure in my righteousness?

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When we say The Apostle’s Creed we affirm that, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” For most of my life I didn’t know how to rejoice in this judgment. I didn’t understand how this could be part of the good news.

But then grace broke in. And grace came in the words of Augustine.

See, Augustine had a different idea about this. He said what if judgment isn’t about God separating the righteous people from the wicked people? After all, who of us is 100% righteous or 100% wicked? Aren’t we all a mixture of both? What if our lives are like two plants that grow up side by side – one good and the other bad – and as they grow, they intertwine so much that you couldn’t separate the bad one without damaging the good one?

When asked about their biggest regrets, many people will say something like, “I don’t regret anything because even my mistakes were things that helped me to grow.” Our lives are full of both glory and suffering and sometimes the two are so closely linked that we can’t separate them even in our own minds. Sometimes our worst mistakes or experiences ultimately lead us to some of our best moments.

Augustine says, What if God lets the good and the bad grow up together for a time and judgment is when he separates them, once and for all, at the end?

We cannot perfect our lives. We cannot expunge all the evil that exists in the world. But maybe THAT’S what judgment day is for. Maybe it is about God extracting the bad, the evil, the sin, and the brokenness that is woven into our lives, and throwing it to the fire, leaving our lives perfect and whole. Wouldn’t this be the best thing that could ever happen to us? Wouldn’t this kind of judgment be the cause of great rejoicing?

Maybe judgment isn’t about shame. Maybe it isn’t God projecting a film of all our failings on a jumbotron. And maybe judgment isn’t about God choosing to bless some and judge others. Maybe judgment has nothing to do with our works of righteousness.

Maybe judgment is our deliverance. Maybe judgment is when we can finally stop wrestling with sin, when we can stop experiencing brokenness, when we can finally be pure. Maybe judgment is the greatest grace of all.

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This essay is a little excerpt from the book I’ve been working on writing. I hope it’s something you could connect with!