Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Grace”

All we like lepers

Lately I’ve been developing my holy imagination by meditating on the Gospel accounts of Jesus.

Instead of reading the stories for “information-about-Christian-living” or for “principles-to-live-by,” I’ve been simply seeking to get to know Jesus. I want to watch him at work, observe how he is with people, and listen to what his words convey about him.

I came across Luke’s story of Jesus’ interaction with a leper (ch. 5). In his account, Luke points out that the man is “covered with leprosy.” Not just a rash hidden under his shirt. Not just a spot on his arm.

But covered.

No hiding or faking his condition.

As horrible as leprosy itself was in this culture, the physical condition paled against the emotional pain of shame that leprosy inflicted on its victims. Lepers were labeled (the name itself is enough to cause one to shudder). They were ostracized and minimized and shunned. They were untouchable–a blight to society.

The self-disgust and shame  this man defined himself by is seen in his approach to Jesus. “If (and that’s a big IF) you are willing you can make me clean,” he tentatively offers to Jesus in his  request for help.

All this while laying face-down.

This man has fully bought into his shame and learned his place in society well.

Jesus is unfazed by the man’s leprosy and all that it was supposed to represent. Apparently Jesus hadn’t got the memo that such a person was too gross, undesirable and dangerous to interact with.

Jesus reaches out and touches the man. Touches him. This guy probably hasn’t experienced this basic demonstration of acknowledgment of his humanity in years.

As Jesus touches the man, he speaks words of life. “I am willing, be cleansed.”

These aren’t merely words packed with physical healing, as incredible as that is.

Jesus’ words obliterate the shame, rejection and unworthiness that have chained this man.

“You’re clean.” It’s a message of belonging, value, validation and permission. Permission to join in life. Permission to participate. Permission to contribute.

As I imagined Jesus interact with this man, Jesus’ seemed to turn his focus on me.

I realized that I’ve been carrying my own leprosy–the shame of my own sin and the accompanying assumption that I don’t really belong. I’ve believed I’m not worthy of participating in life-giving contributions in Jesus’ kingdom work.

I contemplated Jesus’ words to me. He was offering to remove my leprosy.

I was struck with the audacious nature of Jesus’ grace.

Jesus doesn’t seem to care that we’ve been covered with leprosy.

Jesus has the nerve to reach out and touch us in our grossness. His only interest seems to be cleaning us, setting us free and giving our value back.

It’s as if he were saying to me, “Come on and join the party. I don’t want you to miss out.”

It’s almost scary to take it in.

I don’t think I’m alone, either. As I shared this experience with some of my friends, each one acknowledged they, too, have their leprosy.

As we explored our respective leprosy we concluded that at its core, leprosy really isn’t the particular sins we’ve involved ourselves in–addictions, lust, porn, jealousy, prideful competition, whatever.

Rather the real leprosy is the sense of shame of not being good enough. Whatever our stuff is, it tells us that we don’t measure up, don’t qualify and don’t belong.

I’m thankful that Jesus doesn’t buy into our beliefs in and loyalty to our leprosy stories. I pray we can hear him loud and clear.

“I don’t believe a word of your leprosy. All that stuff it says about you doesn’t mean a thing to me.  I’m all about cleaning you. Come on and join in the party. You belong. You’re enough.”

A starting point for understanding ourselves

In his fine work, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, David Benner states:

“The first thing many Christians would say they know about themselves as a result of their relationship with God is their sinfulness. And quite possibly the first thing they would say they learned about God from this was God’s forgiveness and love.”

I don’t argue with Benner in his observation. Most of the Christianity I’ve been around, and most of the Christians I know, start with this piece of information: we are sinners. Not only do we sin, but we have a condition of sinfulness.

While I agree that theology of sin, my question is this: Is this the starting point? Is this where our self-understanding and our understanding of God begins?

Or, does God begin with a different starting point?

I think the latter is true.

In Ephesians, Paul starts from a different place in understanding both ourselves and God. He spends the first part of the book exploring the infinite and extravagant love, generosity, kindness and goodness of God.

Long before Paul introduces our rebellion of sin, he gives ample ink establishing the love of God. And when Paul does get to identifying our sin, he states:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Ephesians 2: 4-5).

Before sin, God loves. Before we are identified as sinners we are identified as being loved.

Starting with being loved seems to vitally important for us to grasp. Paul devotes significant prayer toward that end (see Ephesians 1:15ff; 3:14ff). This is what transforms us to being the people God created us to be. It’s also basis for the rest of Paul’s letter dealing with practical issues of obedience.

It seems, then, that the goal of following Jesus isn’t getting our act together. Rather it’s to know and experience a life of loving and being loved.

In the former approach, we never quite get it good enough.

In the latter we’re already there, and we’re free to live out of that existence.

I wonder how it would change us if we started there?

A failure in defining failure

“Failure is an education, not a judgment,” Donald Miller.

We are a people obsessed with measuring and quantifying. We believe they determine and measure success and, therefore, validation. If we can demonstrate that we’ve performed enough units of measure in the desired outcome, then we have succeeded. If we succeed, we have value and worth.

Measuring and quantifying allow us to compare ourselves with others. When we score high, we take a certain satisfaction that we’ve outdone others. Our value and worth elevates. This provides us with the much needed psychological cushion of being better than others.

But pity when we miss the mark. When our scores don’t measure up or others out-perform us, we’re left with the bitter taste of failure. Our worth and value plummet. Shame shrouds us like a thickLondonfog.

In that light, I find it interesting that Jesus comes through the back door when emphasizing value. In the Beatitudes, he promotes characteristics that we deem as weakness and failure.

“You are blessed when . . . you are poor . . . you mourn . . . you are meek . . . you are hungry and thirsty . . . “

Maybe what we see as failure is actually success in disguise.

I find this plays out in life experience. The character traits that we associate with spiritual maturity typically come through dealing with some kind of failure.

  • Humility comes when we taste the reality of weakness.
  • Grace comes through experiencing brokenness.
  • Courage comes by facing our fear.
  • Forgiveness comes by acknowledging our sin.
  • Mercy comes after we’ve been hurt and betrayed.
  • Mercy also come when we hurt and betray.
  • Hope comes from embracing loss.

I’ve seen this demonstrated by people who have courageously allowed Jesus to restore their lives after catastrophic failure.

Sal and Terri (names have been changed) are great examples. They are good friends of mine and they give me permission to tell their story.

About 15 years into their marriage, this pastor couple saw their lives blow up in front of them.

Sal confessed that he’d had a series of one night stands with women he’d met online.

The news was like boiling oil scalding Terri’s soul. She wailed as she balled up in a fetal position. 

It was no less painful for Sal. Shame, embarrassment, the knowledge he’d hurt so many gnawed on him relentlessly. Death would have been a welcome escape.

Their church was devastated. Bewilderment, grief and anger swelled in the congregation as they futilely attempted to reconcile the disclosure with their heretofore image of their trusted leader.

It was a shipwreck of catastrophic proportions.

But Jesus was just getting started in His restoration work. He began to walk Sal and Terri through the difficult, perilous road of recovery and healing.

Sal and Terri faced their pain head-on. Sal stepped into a level of honesty he never knew existed. He owned up to the pain his betrayal caused those he loved the most. He stayed present with Terri as she expressed her hurt and anger over what he’d done.

Sal ventured into the chaos of his childhood. Abandoned by his father and burdened by a needy mother, Sal had turned early to pornography to escape his pain. Sex became his avenue for validation.

Terri carefully waded through the difficult decisions of what she should do with her shattered trust and marriage. She courageously counted the costs. She allowed herself to fully taste her anger. She wrestled with the question of being able to trust Sal enough to stay in the marriage.

As she weighed her choices, she chose to commit herself to the process of forgiving Sal. She resolved to stay in the marriage and to make every effort she could to see it restored.

Together, Sal and Terri went to work on their marriage. They left no stone unturned. They examined the systemic nature of their relational style. They learned to more authentically express themselves to each other. They recognized past patterns of shoving certain issues under the carpet and committed to practicing more direct address with each other.

It’s not been an easy road for Sal and Terri. Old habits don’t go away overnight. The hurt and anger occasionally threatens their resolve. They can grow discouraged. But they haven’t quit.

It’s now been six years since Sal’s disclosure. Sal and Terri are still together. Their family is thriving. They report their love for each other is strong. They’ve learned what forgiveness, commitment, perseverance and faith are all about.

Are Sal and Terri failures? Certainly some would say so. They would point to Sal’s moral breech as a permanent disqualifier for a Christian testimony, and certainly church leadership. Some would shake their heads and wonder why Terri would stay with him.

But Sal and Terri demonstrate the essence of success as defined by Jesus. They know brokenness. They know vulnerability. They’ve walked through their dark side.

Precisely because of their journey of failure they’ve demonstrated what it means to follow Jesus.

In many amazing and painful ways they’ve successfully exhibited what forgiveness, mercy, perseverance, hope, reconciliation and repentance are all about.

As Rob Bell says, “When a marriage has been to hell and back, when a couple has gone through their failures and yet they’ve found a way to get through it and restore their relationship, to forgive and grow, now THAT”S a story.”

Method Says More Than Content

How we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. Actually,  more so.

In other words, the way we convey our message says as much or more as the words of our message. Method trumps content.

The other day, our church had one of those awkward silent moments in the service. There was a mix-up in how the sermon was to progress, and we stumbled along as we got back on track.

In discussing the incident with a friend, he recalled being asked to present his missions project to a large church that televised their services. Every detail of the service was rehearsed beforehand. They meticulously timed each segment to fit the hour slot. No deviations allowed. The program was to be slick and tight,

Our guffaw would not have been tolerated.

Thankfully, ours is a small congregation. We have the luxury to make mistakes in our service.

The fact that we’re allowed to have glitches says volumes. Perhaps the aforementioned mega-church’s zero-tolerance for mistakes in their service says even more.

What do we communicate about Christianity when our Sunday services have to be perfect? When every detail is choreographed? When the speaker is clever, polished and buff? When the music must be studio-perfect and usually performed by attractive,  hip artists?  When the service order and production clicks along without a hitch?

I fear the message that God loves losers and mess-ups and has plenty of grace for our mistakes is lost.

We can say those words all we want, but if our delivery methods consist of picture-perfect messengers and overly-polished productions, the congregation isn’t going to believe our words.

The ones on the stage have it all together.

They never make mistakes.

They always know exactly what to say and what to do.

They’re never off-pitch.

They’re obviously successful.

Christianity must be for those who have it all together.

I obviously don’t cut it.

Maybe when I do life better, God might let me on the inside.

Until then, I’ll keep quiet about my junk. I’ll try my hardest to fake it and convince everyone here I’m doing fine.

Our method is incongruous with our content.

One metaphor we use for church is the family of God.

How many families always have perfect productions? What family doesn’t have messes? Don’t parents and kids botch things up? Meals get burnt. Beds go unmade. Kids throw up at the most inopportune times. Mom and dad argue.

When families have to look picture-perfect and live life on cue, you end up with eating disorders, cutting, and obsessive habits. Family members end up in long-term therapy.

The message of grace, forgiveness, unconditional love and hope (the message of the Gospel) comes through most clearly in the middle of imperfections, mistakes and faults.

The awkward silence and mess-up in our service demonstrated and spoke more about God than whatever the sermon was about. It said more about the wonder of grace than any of the worship songs did.

New Identity

My friend gives me permission to tell this story. He’s a pastor.  Throughout his 30-plus years of ministry he’s struggled with depression, at times acutely.

Growing up, dad was angry and hard to please. Mom was doting, overly attached and emotionally suffocating.

My friend’s marriage has been marked by chronic contention and power struggles. His marital problems have coincided with his depression, each feeding into the other.

Sometime back, my friend conveyed how remorseful he felt for his contribution to his painful marriage. He acknowledged the deep hurt he’d caused his wife. Dejection and despair clouded his face.

I asked him, “When you sit with your remorse over how you’ve interacted with your wife, what do you sense from God? What does He say about who you are? What do you sense His opinion is of you?”

Without pausing for reflection, he matter-of-factly stated, “I’m a f****** S-O-B.”

His candidness and immediacy startled me.

We reconnected last week. My friend updated me on the current state of his marriage. Things are still difficult. Knowing he hurts her feelings continues to pain him.

I asked the question again. “What is God saying to you in the midst of this? What is His opinion of you?”

His response was again immediate. “After you asked me that the first time, I spent time meditating on Romans 8, where it says we call God, ‘Abba, daddy.’ I heard God speak to me, ‘You’re not what you’ve thought you were. Don’t you realize you’re my son? You’re my son, for goodness sake!’ Knowing this makes all the difference.”

It was . . . awesome.



“All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos lif is being found in You

You make beautiful things”

Discomfort of Grace

One of my favorite stories of grace is the Prodigal Son. He blows everything, hits rock bottom, then comes to his senses, and heads back home.

He has a carefully prepared speech geared to diffuse what he presumes will be his father’s anger and disappointment. “No way do I expect that you’ll take me back as a son. I know I don’t deserve that. The best I can hope for is that you’ll be kind enough to allow me back as a hired hand–as one of your slaves.”

You know the rest of the story. His father exceeds the prodigal’s (and our) wildest imagination. He displays unimaginable grace. The father won’t hear any of the son’s pitch to be a hired servant. The prodigal is a son, through and through, and is fully restored into the family again. The best robe, a ring and sandals–all privileges reserved for family–are given to the son. To top it off, the father orders that a blow-out party be thrown in the prodigal’s honor.

Who doesn’t love this story? Well, okay, other than the prodigal’s brother those of us who identify with the older, more responsible brother. But otherwise, we can’t help but feel the thrill of such love and grace lavishly given by the father.

Lately I’ve been wondering how the prodigal handled his father’s generous acceptance and joyous celebration? I’ve been imagining what it was like for him to have a pricey ring on his finger, an expensive robe on his back, and signature sandals on his feet, knowing full well where he’d just come from.

How did he handle being the center of such a joyous and excessive celebration–dancing and wine and food and slaps on the back and hugs and kisses–after such self-indulgence and wastefulness, fully aware of the pain he’d caused his dad?

After all, the prodigal’s behavior wasn’t just the whim of getting carried away being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, his was the act of premeditated selfishness and rebellion.

How could the prodigal take all this in? How did he stay and party? What kept him from slinking out of the room in shame?

This speaks of the courage it takes to embrace God’s grace. While we glibly sing of amazing grace, truth is, grace is uncomfortable.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize the discomfort of grace. When facing the shame of a particular failure, I often felt it would be easier to run away and hide. That way, I could continue to nurse my sense of unworthiness and beat myself up. To receive family and friends’ love, forgiveness and acceptance has demanded more courage than I thought I had.

It came to a critical mass point a few weeks ago. I was asked to present a marriage seminar and do the Sunday sermon at a friend’s church. The response was moving. People responded with great affirmation and reported how helpful my presentations were to them. I could sense God speaking to me that it was time to move forward and not let my past cripple and define me.

I recognized that I was (and am) at a crucial juncture in my life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, I sensed the Father saying, “It’s time to embrace your calling and ministry. To hold back because of your shame is not humility. It is cowardice.”

Embracing grace, with its strange mixture of joy and discomfort, seems crucial to being the good enough pastor.

Some Practical Theology

I am reading Viginia Satir’s The New People Making. Published in 1988, it’s hardly “new” anymore. Her insights, however, are timeless.

I am not aware that Satir, a pioneer in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy, ever professed to be a Christian. But her writing indicates that she “got” grace more than many who profess Christ and espouse the Christian theology of grace. For all our talk in the church about grace, I find that a good deal of our Christian systems are more shame-based and performance-oriented than manifestations of grace. But I digress.

Satir’s book explores the role of the family system in shaping and forming the individuals within it. It’s an extensive and exhaustive expose. In reading it, I’ve been struck with the idea that her concepts and processes make for good practical theology for church life. Let me share a few examples:

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere in which individual differences are appreciated., love is shown openly, mistakes are used for learning, communication is open, rules are flexible, responsibility (matching promise with delivery) is modeled and honesty is practiced–the kind of atmosphere found in a nurturing family. It is no accident that the children of families who practice the above usually feel good about themselves and consequently are loving, physically healthy and competent” (p. 26).

What she states about the family is true for the church. Imagine a church operating from a relational system such as she describes. She provides us with a great definition of a culture of grace. Sadly, too many churches operate from a shame-based and shame-producing culture.  Specifically, communication is not open. Only acceptable, agreeable statements are  welcomed and tolerated. Rules are rigid, harsh and unforgiving. Mistakes are dealt with punitively. We seem more intent on making others wrong and making sure they are put in their place. Honesty is preached about, but pretending and keeping up an image are modeled. I agree with Satir, a church that can practice what she is promoting will produce people who are good with themselves, loving, healthy and competent.

“Some styles of parenting are based on comparison and conformity” (p. 34). How many pastoral styles are based on these? What if we as pastors could shift away from this and be comfortable with uniqueness, diversity of view points and individual expression of gifts. Seems like the Apostle Paul had a similar vision of church life.

“Eyes clouded with regret for the past, or fear for the future, limit vision and offer little chance for growth or change” (p. 64).

How true for us pastors and our churches. This speaks to the courage it takes to embrace forgiveness, grace and faith. What would our lives, our ministries and our churches look like if we allowed the God of grace to free us of these fetters? How would our vision expand–what could we see and what possibilities would we pursue?

A final quote, “Spending time on any kind of blame just makes you ineffective and limits your energy for change. Blame is an expensive, useless, and destructive way to use your energy” (p. 211).

Ever notice how much blaming can go on in congregations? Among pastors? I wonder what it says about us when we blame others, our church board, the contentious parishioner who gives us fits, denominational leaders and/or political leaders? Whatever generates blame, one thing is sure. Blaming keeps us stuck in the process and mires us in continuing to be part of the problem.

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