Grace. Last week I made sure we got to church early. Frances Chan was speaking and I am a fan. We even took his picture, which is something I would not normally do in church. His books are so deep, insightful, convicting. As an author, he is so vulnerable, honest and real. It was the first time I saw him speak in person and wow! What a dynamic speaker! He is everything I could only dream to be as a speaker ~ hilarious, insightful, engaging. He touched the funny bone and the heart. His message had impact and covered trust and struggle, rejoicing and relationship. I walked away filled with worship of God and some good action steps to make me a better disciple of Jesus.
But. Yes, I have a but. It is a small but and an unfair but, since my expectations are unrealistic, more than even a super human like Frances Chan could meet. But, I wondered if his analogy about grace was enough.
He shared the story of how his daughter, normally an “A” student, failed one of her exams. She was so afraid of what he would do, what kind of punishment she would receive, and how much she might have disappointed him.
“You know what we are going to do?” he asked his daughter, when she finally faced him with the exam.
“We are going to go out to dinner to celebrate,” he said.
“What?” She was incredulous!
“Yup! We are going to go celebrate your first “F”. And even though it’s a school night, we are going to the movies ~ whatever you want to see.”
Wow! What a great parallel to God’s grace! I thought. Of course, that was Frances Chan’s intention. He had a powerful opportunity for a teachable moment with his daughter about God’s grace ~ he was also quick to point out that if it happened again he would have a teachable moment regarding God’s wrath!
But something about the analogy wasn’t sitting well with me. Something about it wasn’t right. It just wasn’t enough ~ it was too human nature, too natural and not enough supernatural. Let me explain.
You see, Frances Chan’s daughter was normally an outstanding student. After this mishap with one bad grade, chances are very good she would go back to being an outstanding student. Frances himself said she would because she is Asian (he got a big laugh from that one!) Wouldn’t it be natural for any of us to give her grace under these circumstances? These things happen. If she is anything like my high-achieving daughter, she probably had a hard time even giving herself grace for this minor blunder. So, in my opinion (no offense intended to a super great teacher), I think this kind of grace is not a stretch. It’s not a supernatural grace.
What about the kid who fails not one exam, but fails over and over again? What about the defiant child who doesn’t give a rip what their parents think? What about the one who insists on living life their own way? At what point do we stop taking them out to dinner? After the fourth, fifth or sixth infraction? See, this is a different story. This makes us pause. Continue to lavish grace on a kid like this? A little harder to imagine. So, at what point does our natural, human nature grace run out?
The thing is we, you and I, are the failing kid. We like to think we are the “good” kid with only minor infractions, easy to extend grace to, but think about it for a minute. How many times have you failed to live up to God’s standards? For me, too many to count. How often are your thoughts not in alignment with God? This is a daily battle for me. Do you ever have seasons in life when you just want to live life your own way? Let’s not talk about that, except to say that one of the best things I did was surrender my stubborn spirit to the Lord.
Oh yes, I think we can all agree we have been a defiant child to God…and maybe even more often than we would like to admit. And what is God’s response to us? At what point does He cross His arms and walk away? Never! God’s grace is never ending. From the most heinous act to the most minor offense, His love covers a multitude of sins ~ something our human minds and hearts can barely comprehend. Each time we fail and fall and come to Him with a contrite heart, He forgives, He forgets. He still lavishes unmerited favor and blessings on us. His grace and mercy are unfathomable. This type of grace is not natural ~ it truly is supernatural.
I loved Frances Chan’s story about his daughter and agree that it does give us a glimpse into God’s grace. I could easily understand and see myself giving grace in that situation. And that is precisely why it made me a little uneasy. The kind of natural grace I could extend to another has limits. It has memory. It is justifiable. But that is not God’s grace. How can we adequately explain His grace when His grace supersedes the natural? Really? Words can’t. His grace is incomprehensible.
Mothers. One of my greatest blessings has been to be a mother. I wish I could say that I executed the role of motherhood perfectly. All the time. Without fail. No regrets. But if I said that, I have two beautiful children who would find time to leave me a comment or two to bring me back to reality. Reality is that I am an imperfect mother.
For example, it seemed our son had a bump or scrape on his head every day from age one to age two. It didn’t matter how closely I watched him, how near I kept him, or how much I padded the furniture, he just seemed to take one tumble after another that caused some kind of bump or abrasion on his poor little head. I was sure I was the worst mother in the world. But like most active little boys, he grew out of that stage intact only to enter another equally challenging phase.
My daughter was not as physically active as a youngster, but had her share of hurts just the same. Missing friends at birthday parties, not being able to try out for the cheerleading squad, broken hearts – it didn’t matter how closely I watched her, or how near I kept her, or how much I tried to protect her heart, there were hurts. At times I would have nightmares that one of my two children would end up on some talk show, speaking from the shadows with their voices altered by a modulator so that no one could identify them – all because of the mistakes I had made as a mother. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Scrapes healed, tender emotions passed and, to my knowledge, no one ended up on a talk show.
I love my children beyond measure, and yet my best efforts at being their mother have always fallen short of perfection. I am grateful that God does not measure my worth by my works – as a mother or in any other area of my life. He does not expect me to save myself by what I do or don’t do. What a wonderful gift is God’s grace that saves an imperfect mother like me!
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8
“I do.” In sickness and in health. Did that. Check.
“I do.” For richer or poorer. Did that. Check.
“I do.” Till death do you part. This part became a bitter pill during our very tumultuous marriage. I still was able to make that check mark on my life list; I just figured that one of us would kill the other in order to keep us faithful to this vow. We didn’t kill each other but after 19 years of marriage, my husband had enough. That began a marital separation that lasted for several years.
It was, by far, one of the most painful experiences of my life; but with that pain was a tremendous amount of growth…and grace. Remember those teen years? Bodies being stretched, at times several inches in a year, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally, depending on your gender. It was painful and awkward. Often, you didn’t feel like you belonged in your own skin. There were many times during those teen years when I didn’t want to look at my own reflection in the mirror because I just didn’t like what I saw.
During my time of separation, I often felt like that insecure, awkward teen. When I looked in the mirror of my soul, I didn’t like the woman I had become. But God, full of grace, used that time to stretch me, to grow my faith, to smooth out the many rough edges that I had accumulated over the years. Just as every teenager has to go through some growing pains, physically and emotionally, to become young adults, I had to go through my own growing pains to become the woman God wants me to be.
It was during this time that I also learned what it meant to show grace towards others, to offer the same forgiveness that He had offered to me, to choose beauty over ugliness. It wasn’t easy ~ it isn’t easy ~ but then I think of all the ugly that God has had to look beyond in me to see anything of beauty.
It is amazing what our great God can do when two people are willing to surrender their own selfish desires into His hands ~ when they are willing to lay down their hurts for His healing, their right to be right for His mercy and justice, their own paths for His. Miracles can happen. Marriages can be saved. I know because mine was and yesterday we celebrated our 30th anniversary.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9
Gift Exchanges. It’s that time of year, isn’t it? It’s all about the “gift exchange”. We buy gifts for loved ones and they buy gifts for us. We like some of the gifts we receive and we re-gift the ones we don’t like. They like some of the gifts we give them and they return the ones they don’t like. And then there are those holiday parties where you have a gift exchange. Some are white elephant gift exchanges where you bring that item you have never figured out what to do with, and of course, could never re-gift. Or there is the traditional gift exchange where you bring a nice gift and guests spend the evening engaged in a game of stealing gifts from one another.
Whatever the gift exchange, it is always fun. Well, almost always. Last week we went to a party that included a fun gift exchange. As we were leaving, a friend at the party shared a story about a gift exchange experience he had that had gone bad.
It was a get together of friends, he explained, and he had understood the gift exchange to be white elephant. And so he searched his house for the “perfect” gift to bring ~ a little candle lantern that he and his wife had gotten at a wedding reception.
“It couldn’t have been worth more than 25 cents,” he told us. He continued the story by telling us about his wife’s concern.
“Are you sure this is the right kind of gift to bring?”
“I’m sure! You know, it’s one of those gag gift exchanges.”
”Really? That wasn’t the impression I got, but if you are sure…”
By now you are probably sensing that things are about to go badly for my friend. They went to the party and soon realized that it wasn’t a white elephant gift exchange after all ~ quite the contrary. Guests had brought very nice and some expensive gifts for the exchange. His wife just sat there mortified as one by one the gifts were opened leaving their little package containing the 25 cent lantern. It was the last gift to be opened and the lucky party guest excitedly approached the package. In my mind I can see her excitement, because good things come in small packages, don’t they? And just look at all the great things that had been brought so far? Surely this would be a little treasure. Imagine her shock and dismay when she opened the present to find the little lantern. We laughed with him over the embarrassing story and then understood why his wife didn’t join him this time. Ah, the fun of gift exchanges!
But here is truly the best story I have ever heard about a gift exchange. There was this woman who was not a terribly bad person, but certainly flawed. Over the course of her life she had told a few white lies, held a grudge or two, said less than kind things to her husband, and truth be told, she was a bit of a control freak. She was invited to go to the most spectacular holiday party she could possibly imagine, and while she wouldn’t be the richest, most beautiful, or certainly the most righteous person there, she felt she was at least good enough and worthy enough to go. So she said RSVP YES! But sadly, her RSVP came back with a note attached.
Your host would love for you to be here for the party. It is sure to be spectacular and the celebration will last forever, but it has come to our attention that you have been less than perfect. Regretfully, only those with unblemished pasts are able to attend.
She was devastated! How could this possibly be?! Who in the world could ever even go to a party like this? She was about to throw the whole invitation in the trash when she noticed some writing on the back. It was red, the color of fresh blood, and highlighted with gold. Intrigued, she stopped to read what it said.
My child, I love you so much. I would be absolutely devastated if you could not be with me for the party. I understand that you have done some things in the past that you regret, some people you have hurt, some things that may have caused you shame. No one is perfect, right? Ah, but there is a perfect one ~ my son, Jesus. He wanted you here, too, so he willingly agreed to pay the price for every bad thing you ever did or will do. It was costly and painful, but you are worth it and we want you here.
Oh, she thought, how am I ever going to repay this debt? What can I possibly do to make this right? She saw the answer written as she continued to read, as though her host had known her questions before she even asked.
There is nothing you can do to repay me, so please don’t even try. There is no exchange. I love you and this is my gift to you. All you have to do is receive it. It is my heart’s desire that you do. Love, God.
I did and it truly was the best gift exchange in the world.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:15