I was thinking about the Apostle Paul this morning. I was on my morning walk and, as usual, it took me into a time of serious contemplation. I was thinking about my life and about my current situation and about the last 4 years and all that has come and gone. So many sunrises and sunsets and so many seasons and so much time.
I usually use this time for prayer and introspection and today was no different. I was praying and walking and my heart grew heavy with the thoughts of how I have dishonored God so many times by refusing to trust Him to resolve issues and fix things and the stubborn insistence on not waiting for answers to prayer. To be honest, this time of grieving wound up with me feeling repentant over really not trusting God much at all.
I know the promises and the character of God all right. I know He is good, and Holy, and omniscient and Omnipotent, and Immutable etc. I have built whole teachings and sermons around His amazing love and grace and mercy and how breathtakingly wild He is about us. It’s not that I don’t believe these things to be true about God…it’s just that I don’t believe them to be true about how He feels about me. …and only me.
I believe He has shown unfathomable grace to heathens and murderers and whores and drunks and scallywags. I believe He loved David and called him “A man after my own heart” even after he lusted, committed adultery, then murdered to cover his adultery. I believe he was so quick to forgive Peter for his obscenity-laced tirade of denial that he never even asked for an apology, nor is one recorded in scripture. I believe He loved the worst of sinners and the best of saints. I believe His one and only concern is our return to Him when we are estranged.
“We will certainly die and be like water poured out on the ground, which can't be recovered. But God would not take away a life; He would devise plans so that the one banished from Him does not remain banished." II Samuel 14:14
I believe He adds no sorrow to our sin but instead uses all His means to bring us back to where He can bless us again. I just don’t believe it about me.
I sort of understand why. I won’t go into it here in depth but I have a very hard time processing love of any kind. Other than the love of my daughter, I distrust love in almost every form. People are fickle and they can withdraw their love for no reason other than they simply wish to, or they don’t find you lovely anymore.
God never does this…I get it. But somehow I don’t really get it. Not all the time.
And for years I have beaten myself up over my lack of faith in His love and grace and my hesitant, reluctant attempts to embrace this love of His.
I was walking and thinking about this and wondering how it is that God built me with such gifts of communication and yet I never listen to my own message. I wondered how one of the gifts most prevalent in my life is the ability to convince those far from God that He adores them and longs for them and misses them and that it’s safe to return to Him…and yet I can’t let my guard all the way down and accept this truth myself.
For some reason I started thinking about two great men. One, an apostle and father of the Church and the other a modern day prophet in rags with a message of grace as sweet as it’s ever been told and who has touched the lives of a generation of broken, Grace-starved Christians…myself included.
The first man is Paul. I was thinking about Paul this morning. I was beating myself up pretty good about not accepting the gift of grace as completely as I should, all the while preaching it with all my might to others. I felt quite the hypocrite. I felt angry with myself and fraudulent and disqualified to carry any message at all.
Somehow I thought about Paul. I thought about the passion of his writings. I thought about the topics he dealt with. I thought about that thorn in the flesh about which he wrote so openly about but never disclosed the identity of.
I was raised to believe it was a physical ailment. Perhaps a problem with his eyes or a limp or a wound that would not heal properly from all the beatings he took. But I began to think it might be emotional and spiritual and so this afternoon I researched the words in the passage (II Cor 12:7-10) In reality there is nothing in the Greek or Aramaic that would render this an actual physical malady. This was emotional and spiritual.
I started to wonder what it was. Was Paul haunted at night by the image of a dying Stephen as the rocks smashed against his skull and Paul gave approval? Did he wake up in a cold sweat most nights with the screams of those he had dragged out of their homes and tortured for the Faith ringing in his ears? Did he weep over the broken friendship with Jon Mark? Did he miss his wife and toss and turn sometimes in fevered longing for her body in the night? Was this why he wrote to younger men “It is better to marry than to burn with passion”? Did Paul battle with a drive for perfection (as easily recognized in his writings) that drove him to constantly feel unworthy, underachieving and maybe a little insecure? Is this why he would go on and on sometimes as he taught…preaching one night for so long that a man drifted off to sleep and fell out of a window? Was he worried he might miss something, and thereby leave his teaching somehow lacking and this drove him to long-winded marathons?
Did he ever wonder…maybe just once in a while…if “The Way” was really the way? Not all the time…not even much of the time…but once in a while. Did he doubt?
I saw Paul in a different light. I grasped Romans 7 in a deeper way. I heard a slight twinge of desperation in “I have run the race...” I saw a pained look of regret in “But forgetting those things which are behind…I choose to press on to the high calling of God in Jesus Christ”. Were they all good accomplishments he was forgetting and leaving behind? Or were there painful memories in there? Was he occasionally worried that his best wasn’t enough and God might not be as forgiving as he hoped he would be when the day of reckoning came and he stood before Jesus and in the background saw the faces of those whose deaths he had caused by his war on the Church in the days before his salvation. I guess what I really wondered is “Was Paul human?”
Humans find grace difficult to grasp and even more difficult to accept. We grew up believing there was no free lunch and dawg-gonnit we aren’t going to stop now.
I thought of my recent interaction with a high school friend who I hadn’t seen in probably 25 years. I had no idea about her life or her situation or anything. We reconnected via social media and eventually, over time I learned where she was in her faith.
Life had taken a few good swings at her and she had been beaten a bit. Like almost all of us, she saw her failings as terminal illnesses where God was concerned. “Surely He didn’t want me around after this.” Over the past several months, very quietly and gently behind the scenes I have been reminding her consistently and repeatedly about the grace of God. About His fabulous love for her. About His longing for her to just come near to Him and to let Him come to her. About how He hasn’t cared about her failings since Jesus paid the debt for them on the Cross.
This has been my gift for years and it is something I am good at and enjoy. I love to relate the loving grace of God to those who doubt it.
I just wish I could convince myself.
Where my friend gulped it down and let it soothe her raging heart almost instantly…I battle it. I choke on the message I loudly proclaim and swallow it like bitter herbs…a tiny taste here and there.
I wondered this morning, as I walked, if Paul was like this. Did this drive his passion and fuel his obsession with perfectly defending the faith? Was there ever a night when he secretly lay awake until the deep hours of the night wondering if--after all this-- God really was wild about him?
I know I have. I know I have preached sermons about grace. I have written page after page about the magnificent depth of the love of God. I have proclaimed His love and grace and his wild passionate pursuit of his beloved with as much eloquence and imagery as anyone has. I am good at this. But for me…I doubt it just a little.
I realized this morning that it is this doubt that drives me to proclaim it in the first place. I must surely believe it because I still offer it as life changing truth to anyone who needs it. And perhaps with each word I speak to someone else…it becomes just a tiny bit more true in my own heart as well.
I wondered this morning if this is how Paul was. When he taught of grace, did the words wash over him and soothe a raging fire that no one knew existed? Did he feed the hungry souls of thousands of lost and longing sinners and in each enraptured face, see himself looking back. Did some still small voice whisper “You see Paul…if it’s true for them it must be true for you”?
I am convinced this is the case. I could go into some scriptural references to support this…and I might in the future…but my gift is that of painting a picture and letting you think about it a bit.
After considering Paul and his struggle with accepting grace I thought immediately of another man. A man I love dearly and admire and look to as a literary hero and whose mantle I have openly asked for as his life ebbs.
Last March, during a brief ten-day break between semesters, I read the autobiography of Brennan Manning. A book called “All is Grace”. It cut a path through my soul that still remains open. Those of you who know me or read this blog frequently know my love and admiration for this man. Brennan’s masterpiece “The Ragamuffin Gospel” literally saved my life…if not physically then most assuredly spiritually. I have read everything he has written before and since that wonderful book. But it was reading his memoir where I saw what Grace is and can be if we let it. And I saw what it is not if we don’t.
Brennan lived his entire life with one message…Grace. His ministry could be summed up in this statement: “This man is better at convincing people that God loves them than almost anyone who ever walked the earth”. I always knew this to be true about Brennan. But until I read his story, I didn’t know how much he struggled with his own medicine.
Brennan was an alcoholic. He made no attempt at hiding this fact and it was always the centerpiece of his teaching ministry, at least over the last 40 years. He openly recounted how he battled the bottle since childhood and how he stayed for an extended time at Hazeldon and how the crash of his alcoholic self is what brought about his ministry of grace to begin with. What Brennan never revealed until this book came out last year was that in truth, he had never really beaten the bottle. Other than a seven year period where he was sober, he was actually a raging drunk. The last years of his ministry especially were masked in the pretending of an alcoholic. This was a man who could teach with eloquence and passion about a God who loved us to a conference center full of desperate believers, thirsty for the flood of grace he was unleashing. He could do this from Thursday through Sunday, almost every week of the year. Then on Sunday night he would fly out, get a room by the airport, buy a bottle of cheap gin and get blind-drunk. So drunk he missed his mothers funeral because he was passed out in an airport motel and his family couldn’t reach him. So drunk it cost him his marriage. So drunk it cost him his health.
I wept openly and often as I read “All is Grace”. I wondered how a man could convince masses of folks that God adored them and wanted nothing more than to love them as they were and where they were…and yet he could not convince himself of this truth entirely.
I wondered how many times he looked in the mirror before catching a cab to a conference and saw a wretched drunk looking back at him and heard Satan whispering “You fraud!” in his ear. “How can you stand up and teach about Jesus…you’re a drunk”. I wondered how many times he slurred a word or two and worried that the jig was up and he’d be exposed. Then I wept again thinking about what this must have done to his heart.
But after envisioning this broken man, filled with doubt and fear and pain and self-loathing…I saw him preaching his sermon of grace. I saw his typical wild-eyed passion as he told once again, the story of the relentless tenderness of Jesus. And I realized that Brennan’s failure was precisely why he was so great at proclaiming the grace of God. His passion was born of a desperate need for this message of his to be true for him too. Perhaps in each tear-filled face he spoke to, he saw himself. Perhaps each time he taught the message of grace, he was preaching it to himself as well. Perhaps his own failure and shortfall made him a compassionate, powerful, tireless expounder of the very grace he sought.
I saw myself in this. Maybe I am so good at explaining the love and grace of God because I so desperately need it to be true for me. Perhaps I can patiently and gently lead someone to a place of forgiveness and a place where they feel the love of God because I struggle so deeply with this myself. When I speak those words I am so wanting to believe them myself. And with each person who hears the message, maybe just a little bit more of it breaks through to me.
I learned a valuable lesson this morning. A lesson about living honestly. We all wear masks. We hide what we think is unattractive about us and we display, instead, that which we think people will want to see and that which might…just might…make them love us. We smile when we want to cry. We tell people everything is great because that is what our Christian friends demand we say, when in reality we are in immense pain and we need to be reminded just to breathe sometimes. We learn to withhold our doubts and fears because we are forced to be spiritual Supermen. We fear opening up because if we admit our faith is tattered and we have doubts, we are treated like spiritual bastards who neither know the Word nor trust it.
So we stop opening up and we cease to live honestly. We are surrounded by people exactly like us. People in great pain because life has us in a submission hold and we are forced to smile and pretend to ignore it when everything in us wants to cry “uncle” and break down in tears.
I lived as a homeless dad for almost four years and I can tell you that I received far more reproof for my frequent vocalization of my doubts and hurts than I ever did encouragement for my staunch refusal to quit.
My story was messy and ugly, but instead of being blessed and uplifted, most of the time I was rebuked for not having enough faith and for verbalizing my pain.
But honestly…who benefits from my story if I only tell the pretty parts? Who sees grace in action if I keep pretending that “Jesus is all I need” and other assorted bumper stickers.
Who has more in common with my story…the broken believer whose cheese keeps sliding off his cracker or the stately Saint who has never had a bad day in his life? Jesus said He had nowhere to lay His head…not “Come see this massive palace my Father has “blessed” me with! You could have one of these too if you believed enough!”
Paul bore scars, Brennan bore scars. I bear scars. If I hide them they merely reveal themselves as some sort of gruffness or distance. If I reveal them, I become a minister of grace to those like me…and in that ministry I receive the grace I am so thirsty for myself.
I am not what I should be, and I may never be all that I should be. But if I admit that instead of pretending otherwise I find the grace that makes who I am right now okay, and that gives me the hope to try to become who I am called to be.
Grace is seldom overwhelming…it is usually simply sufficient. Just enough for me to survive the day and not much more. If God gave me all the grace I’d ever need as soon as I came to him, what hope would I give to the people who struggle? Seeing someone who never struggles does nothing for me except drain me of the hope that someday I will struggle less. Watching someone struggle and question and doubt and fail and stumble and limp but never quit…that gives me hope. That is truth.
That is grace.