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March 8th, 2011

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08:48 pm - Stages of Grace
Thanks to whitemartyr, to her man Craig, and to one of my pastors for the thoughts which take form beneath the cut. This is something I've been struggling to frame for a while, and what better way to begin the season of Lent?

The more I grow in my faith, the more I understand that we don't just transform towards some specific goal. We are being, as Paul wrote, changed from glory to glory, becoming more like Christ... but the catch there is that we have no way of mapping out what that looks like. Not really. Not in any way that would enable us to write a truly accurate self-help book (although many have tried).

Instead, we have this concept of grace. The open-hearted, unearned gift of God which enables us to seek and grasp who we are meant to be in Him, and to become that person, and to survive the journey at His side.

Many people only see one or two of these stages as part of their growth in relationship with God. I believe that they're all necessary, that we all go through them at different times and in different ways (sometimes out of order, or repeatedly).

These are the stages of grace:

1) Grace opens the heart.

This is what many evangelicals mean by grace, when they talk about being saved by grace alone. It is not our decision that initially enables us to respond to the Spirit of the living God. He reaches out to us first. ("You would not have called to Me unless I had been calling you." --Aslan) He did it through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, but He also does it every day through people and beauty and the world around us.

This is the gift that enables us to reach the moment of choice, where we can either reject God's offer of love and relationship, or say "yes" to everything He has for us.

2) Rules help us figure out how to live with grace

One of the biggest divides between people who consider themselves conservative or devout, and those who are more interested in living life to its fullest and loving with abandon, are the "rules": thoughts about what pleases and displeases God, about what gives us life and what instead damages and pollutes us.

There is a huge problem of condemnation and fear plaguing the modern church. I am a product of it, so I know that intimately. But there is also a place for rules, for codifying things which are good versus things which are bad. It can be very difficult to figure out how to change from our self-centered outlook to one which privileges love towards others even when it inconveniences ourselves. We do well to learn from the lessons that others have laid down, and there is no shame in zealously opposing addictions, or casual sex, or cruel talking, or neglect.

We all need this stage. Paul even talks about it in his freedom manifesto, the book he wrote to the church in Galatia. "The Law was put in charge," he says, speaking to the Jewish believers, "to lead us to Christ." It's a babysitter, to keep us from running into the street and killing ourselves in ignorance before we can grow up enough to make those judgments on our own.

3) Grace takes us beyond rules into the reality of love

There is a place--and pardon me if I'm not good at describing it, being a very new resident myself--where grace steps in once more and pulls us out of our safe box of rules and ethics into a new way of living and loving. One where we no longer have to be concerned about others' expectations, or whether we are "perfect" according to some set standard, or whether we conform to what we once saw as a "real Christian."

Some of us go kicking and screaming, because this place does not feel safe at all. Some of us find that for the very first time we are free of the burden that kept our heads down and our shoulders stooped. But this is where the real work begins. This is where we begin to bare our true selves. Not our sins, not our failures (although those as well), but our talents and gifts, the creativity God has put into each of us, the complete individuality that makes each of us precious and valuable.

Outside, indeed beyond the rules, we find adventure and we find peace, as we no longer have to fight to conform. Instead, becoming trusting children again, we can leap into life holding onto the hand of God and dare things that we would never try if we thought too hard about it. The good works that God created beforehand that we should walk in them; the "greater things than these," that Jesus promised his followers would do by the power of His Spirit.

4) Grace ushers us deeper into the mystery of God

I'm even less clear on this, but my pastor mentioned it when we were discussing my experience of grace this past year, and I believe her. It's more of #3, but ever deeper. We are finite, and will never entirely understand God the Infinite, but the more we are able to let go of our own expectations on Him and on ourselves, and move forward in trust (faith) and love, the more we will know Him, and be known to ourselves.

When we see God, or part of Him, we see who we are becoming. When we see ourselves truly, we see a part of God.

That is one of the mysteries. I'm sure there are many more that I haven't spotted yet. :)

May grace follow each of you this Lenten season, whether you celebrate it or not, and wherever you are in your journey. Every place is touched by God, and that means you are, too.
Current Location: the mysteries of God
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(17 lit candles | Light a candle)


[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
If you wrote a book, I'd read it.

I think I'm bouncing back and forth between #2 and #3, with the associated kicking and screaming. But I think for the first time, I'm starting to realize that #4 even exists.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 02:11 am (UTC)
If you wrote a book, I'd read it.

Truly? You mean like a non-fiction book, stuff like this post? ...Huh. (Sorry to be cryptic, but you're not the first person to tell me that, and the other was someone who I'd barely met, years ago.)

I am more in #3 than #2 right now, but only because I spent the last several years, as you say, bouncing between them. God bless you with an ever deeper experience of grace. :)
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
Yep, stuff like this post. You have a very clear way of expressing things.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 06:21 am (UTC)
Thank you. That means a lot to me.

You'll be the first to know if I write such a book. :)
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 03:32 am (UTC)
I like this.

To the second and third points, I would add that as long as we live, until we are glorified after death, we do still need rules. Not as chains to enslave us, but like a brace to hold us up where we're weak. No congregation will function for long without them. The trouble is that we tend to make rules more important than people, or start thinking they're immutable. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2:27 (ESV) If rules don't help, if they get in the way of love and grace, they need to change. Rules do not save us. Breaking them does not condemn us. We are (hopefully) always moving from point 2 to point 3, but until we die, we will never fully be at point 3.

The fourth point interests me. You could take that sentence a whole bunch of ways. It's grace that makes every stage of our lives beautiful, as flawed as it may be. It's grace that doesn't hurry us, neither does it let us sit on our hands. Grace is how finite beings like us can interact with an infinite God. Grace transforms, lets us see the song in the chaos, takes the hideous and the broken and tells us where the beauty is, and how it can be made more beautiful. Grace is how we can be largely ignorant of all that God is doing and still be part of it, knowing only a hint--a breathtaking hint--of what's really going on.

Grace is how we know God. It's why we're still here. Becoming aware of it is like suddenly being able to see, and our first sight is a sunrise.

...and that's just me. I know you see something I don't, or just missed!
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 06:33 am (UTC)
I have to disagree with your comments on points 2 & 3, at least partially. I agree that congregations need structure, but that's because none of us are at the same stages--rules help bridge the gaps in experience and understanding.

But I'm starting to be absolutely sure that we can, in fact, live in stage #3 while we are here on this earth. I'm not there yet, but I know people who are close, and I am beginning to see what that might be like.

Also? I have spent my life saying things like, "We will need the rules, at least the sensible ones that don't interfere with real love, until the new world." And you know what? All those times I said that, they were nothing but excuses to remain in bondage, to stay "safe" because I didn't trust that what was in myself was good and holy and completely worth giving to others.

It's not just rules taken too far that grace takes us beyond; grace pushes us beyond the need for rules at all, because we become able to rely on love rather than on boundaries we've drawn or had others draw for us.

Love has to become art, not stay formula. As in writing, once you know the rules, you can break them right and left and center, and only then, in that convergence of knowledge and creativity, where you can utterly trust yourself, ditch the self-conscious fear of not doing it right, and just spill out your heart, does passionate, true, powerful communication and expression happen.

And that's what I'm learning right now.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 12:03 pm (UTC)
I guess I'm a little confused on what you mean by "rules." Are you talking about God's rules, or man's rules? Because I'm thinking of Romans 6:15.

I grew up in a church that had both, and there was a distinction between them. Rules based on scripture were defined as such (and I don't recall feeling condemned by that). "Rules" (more like traditions or customs) of the congregation were/are changeable. Oft times people forgot there is a difference between God's rules and man's traditions, and that's something that gets addressed fairly frequently in my experience.

where you can utterly trust yourself

This brings me in mind of Proverbs 3:5-6. I don't think we ever reach a point where we can trust ourselves completely. We ditch the self-conscious fear and spill out our hearts because of our trust in God. Yes, I think we can get to a point where we have confidence in our decisions; that comes with a confidence in our relationship with God.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you?

I have some thoughts, but I can't really formulate them right now, nor am I completely comfortable discussing them in a journal. Neither do I want to press a point that is counterproductive for you and your spiritual growth. We are on different levels of development and experience, and I'm unsure that my thoughts will be of benefit to you.

This is a lovely entry and gives much to cogitate on.

Edited at 2011-03-10 12:13 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)
Very often, it seems to me, what people call "God's rules" are only "man's rules" labeled with authority. For instance, what about women wearing head coverings when they pray? Does your church think of that as a rule of men or of God, since it's in the Bible as a practice the church encouraged?

I'm not trying to be provocative for the sake of it, here; I'm just curious as to your experience of discerning that difference. (It will be different from mine, I am sure, but that means it's valuable.)

My beef is mostly with how people use rules (theirs or God's) to insist that we all be clones of each other in some way, rather than allowing the great differences that God creates as he opens each of us up to receive His love and to love others. Putting each other in a box can be just as damaging as putting God in our boxes, no matter how good the intention.

I don't think we ever reach a point where we can trust ourselves completely. We ditch the self-conscious fear and spill out our hearts because of our trust in God.

To try and clarify:

Here's what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that we can ever be certain that everything we do will be perfect and excellent and never cause harm. We are finite human beings, whose knowledge is limited and whose hearts are still being healed and made whole. So in that sense, no, we cannot completely trust ourselves.

Here's what I AM saying: It's not just that we can trust in God. It is not just that we reach a point of comfort in our decision-making because we trust that we have a good relationship with Him. It's far deeper than that. When God is pouring His spirit into us, it actually transforms us. We are not simply His puppets, we are changed into His substance, from glory to glory. I can trust that what is in my heart and mind is good and worthy and righteous, because He has been at work in me and is at work in me.

I trust myself (am learning to trust myself), because I was created and am continually being re-created by Him, as I partner with and embrace Him.

I trust Him, too, to take care of the consequences when I overstep my finite human bounds.
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 03:26 am (UTC)
I almost deleted my original comment, realizing that we're coming from two totally different directions, and feeling that this most probably was not a response you wanted.

Re: head coverings . . . Head coverings specifically were/are a cultural practice. For a woman to be seen without a head covering would be like a woman today wearing a sexy little black cocktail number, with a slit up to there and the neck cut down to there, to church. Or wearing a bikini to church. Respectful? Worshipful? No.

Yes, the thing about head coverings is in the Bible. Does it apply to us in the specific practice of head coverings? I don't believe so. Does the admonition to be respectful and worshipful apply to us? Yes, very much.

I guess it then becomes a question of one's focus on the passage: is it on the practice of head coverings, or is it on the respectful worship of God? Is respectful worship one of man's rules, or one of God's rules?

However, if a woman deems it necessary to wear some sort of head covering to worship, I'm not going to call her out on it. It's her choice, and she has her reasons.

I find it interesting that a lot of our points of divergence have to do with things that Paul wrote. I'm not sure what to make of that.

I can't comment on the rest right now.

Edited at 2011-03-11 10:29 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 12th, 2011 07:04 am (UTC)
I find it interesting that a lot of our points of divergence have to do with things that Paul wrote. I'm not sure what to make of that.

It occurs to me that this may be partly because I am fascinated by Paul's theology. He's a clear thinker, a strong speaker (using very strong language at times), and he comes out of a culture of zeal for perfection by the Law, which speaks to me powerfully because of my own experience growing up in the church and then being called to minister to those outside it (if you will, "the Gentiles"). Galatians I just keep reading over and over (and Romans, too)--it's a startling book, and I don't know who I haven't seen it taught more often in more churches.

Anyway. Not sure where I was going with that, except that I think your observation is interesting.
[User Picture]
Date:March 12th, 2011 12:29 pm (UTC)
I find Paul to be very direct and plain and no-non-sense in his teachings, and when I took an in-depth study of Paul-the-person, I realized that he is often extremely misunderstood in a lot of corners. He was a very passionate person, both before and after his conversion. He's often the person I think of when I think of how God made each of our personalities and temperaments, and it'a a matter of how and where we choose to focus that.

I meant to tell you: You give me things to think about and ponder and cogitate on. That's a good thing.

Edited at 2011-03-12 12:31 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
I have spent my life saying things like, "We will need the rules, at least the sensible ones that don't interfere with real love, until the new world." And you know what? All those times I said that, they were nothing but excuses to remain in bondage, to stay "safe" because I didn't trust that what was in myself was good and holy and completely worth giving to others.

I think you're absolutely right about that. From all you've written, I think that you (as in you, Izh) do need to throw out the rules. They were killing you. The stuff you've been writing lately has so much more passion and art, is so much more full of life. That alone convinces me that you're doing the right thing.

But as you are different and unique from everyone else, so each of us is different from each other. I've met lots of people who, like you, need to ditch the rules. They've been shackled and blinkered and stunted - I know for myself that ditching my old rules about emotions and expressing them is necessary (and a long-term project). But there are people with the opposite problem, who are aimless and wayward, or keep falling into the same pits. For them, a rule can be a signpost in the wilderness or a ladder out of a pit, helping them define what was previously chaos. You had too much security (or rather, security in rules instead of security in knowing that you were loved regardless and meant to be beautiful in your difference). Some people have no security at all, and thus, like the Psalmist, delight in the rules.

This is why we have Paul telling people to live freely, while James was telling them to work. They're not contradicting each other. They're talking about two completely different problems.

Those of us who've lived in tiny constricted worlds need to learn freedom, while those who've been running amok need to learn discipline. Each path is beautiful and right to the one who needs it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 01:02 am (UTC)
I don't disagree with your description of two different, well, types or groups of people. My dad actually gave me a similar description of this split a few months ago when I was talking with him about rules and freedom--he said, "Your mom and I have noticed that we have two types of kids. One type is fine with accepting boundaries and rules as the way life should be and learning to live that way. The other type needs to wrestle with everything. We used to think you were the first type, but really, you're the second."

I find it hard to believe that ultimately we won't all be living in the same space--the same utter completion and trust and wholeness. It's not a matter of type, not fundamentally; only of degree and time. Some of us need more time with the rules, to be trained in love, and some of us need more time with freedom, to be trained in love in a different way.

I don't know, I'm still feeling this out. It feels right to say that freedom is the ultimate goal, and that rules are never more than our guardian into that life--both here and afterward.

But heck, if you don't see it that way, I'm in for a rough time with the rest of my church community too. ;)

ETA: I think my biggest issue is that no one talks about freedom. Or if they do, it's *only* in the context of keeping the rules. God had to show me this the hard way, and I'm kind of angry that's how it had to play out. Where was the wisdom of those who were in Christ long before me, telling me I didn't have to be a slave?

Edited at 2011-03-11 01:07 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 05:37 am (UTC)
We're all different.

I just spent the evening with a friend who relishes discipline. She grew up without it, and is delighted by it. It doesn't weigh her down. It doesn't imprison her. It helps her grow.

I can go both ways. I've seen my rules turn into idols, and my defiance of rules turn into idols. I really have to listen to God on that some days.

You're right, we need freedom. The Church should be teaching this more. We need to know that God desires us to be free, to have no fear of doing absolutely anything, of living and growing without restrictions. Seriously, I'm sorry I never realized that's what you were dealing with. Your learning this the hard way may just be so that you can bring that freedom to others, because you know what it's like to be enslaved.

On the other hand, human ingenuity is nearly limitless. I think it's possible for having no rules to actually become a rule.

I think we'll "live in the same space", but I also think that trust and wholeness can be expressed in infinitely different ways. We must grow as God made us to grow best. Freely, according to how we are made.
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 06:51 am (UTC)
On the other hand, human ingenuity is nearly limitless. I think it's possible for having no rules to actually become a rule.

ROTFLOL. I suppose that's true. I don't feel any need to go around breaking rules just because they're rules--perhaps I am too practical (for instance, I am a meticulous driver: 14 years behind the wheel and 0 accidents). But wow, it is something to be able to say, I'm me, my story is not yours, it's mine, and therefore even if it's wildly different and I am not who you think I should be, I am still God's and He is doing something through me that He wouldn't be able to do through you. (And vice versa, of course.)

Seriously, I'm sorry I never realized that's what you were dealing with.

Don't be too sorry. :) I barely knew myself, until I had worked through the hard part of failing at everything and found myself on the other side, where God loves me and it honestly doesn't matter if I "measure up" to expectations or not.

I hope God in his grace can use even the rougher parts of this learning curve, though. I'm kind of tired of the emotional swing of learning this new freedom. I want more, but I also want to rest more.
Date:March 11th, 2011 07:43 am (UTC)
The two types of kids thing is why you need to watch Pleasantville. :)
[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
Okay, you have convinced me. :) WE should watch that sometime soon. Or I should, at least.

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