I am certainly a complainer when it comes to what I think I deserve. Because speaking to people I don’t know is difficult for me, it’s very easy for me to judge something like fellowship at church by what I would find comfortable. “No one comes up and talks to me,” I’ll say. “No one invites me to their parties.”
This is, first of all, simply not true. But more than that, it’s the wrong attitude, and I have to turn the question on myself. Do I go up to people? Do I make a point of befriending new faces? Why should I expect others to do it, if I myself won’t? It’s right to desire love from the body of Christ, but I am also the body. I have as much of a responsibility to love as any of the faces I see on Sunday.
I’ve recently been thinking about what it means to open myself to being loved. I have this abstract idea of what it would be like to be loved completely, and yet it seldom involves being known. I seem to want people to know how to encourage me and meet my needs without actually being honest about the struggles in my heart. I want to be a sponge, soaking up encouragement and love from the body of Christ without opening myself to the give and take of messy honesty.
Just as it’s difficult for me to acknowledge that I can’t expect to build relationships without extending my own words and invitations, it’s difficult for me to acknowledge that in order to open myself up to the love of the church, I have to open myself up to being known. Because the unfortunate truth is that the process of being known is kind of awkward. At least in my experience, revealing my needs tends to reveal some of the less awesome parts of my being. And more than anything, it makes me feel weak. My entire life has pretty much been one big quest to appear strong and whole and capable, so anything that counteracts this feels horrible.
These thoughts were put into painful and beautiful clarity this past weekend, when I went on a women’s retreat with my church. If there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s large groups of Christian women. Besides the fact that meeting new people is just difficult for this ISFJ, it’s hard not to find women who are older, or wealthier, or more successful intimidating. It’s hard not to compare or envy. It’s hard not to try on a coat of spirituality that masks the real issues hiding in my heart. Yet what I found, throughout the weekend, was an expression of God’s love being acted out through his church. In an awkward, messy, joyful way, my heart was first convicted, and then graciously shown the beauty of being known by God and by his women.
The weekend began as I had cynically expected. I was confounded by the mechanics of making conversation with women I didn’t know and wasn’t sure I had anything in common with. I listened to women talk about their children and their careers and felt keenly the lack of stability in my life. Almost every woman I met was married or engaged, and I was reminded that for me, all these things are still far off. I spoke about my own passions haltingly. Some of the women from my congregation knew about my job search and asked me how it was going. I replied, “It’s okay!” trying to smooth over the complicated topic.
But as the weekend progressed I began to realize, slowly, that there was life cradled in our conversations. These women are the hands and feet of Jesus, I thought to myself. There is no other secret, perfect church that I don’t have access to. These women, and women and men worldwide, and I myself, as disjointed and strange as we all are, are the out workings of Jesus’ love. It is through our conversations and relationships and actions that Jesus chooses to display much of his love for us.
And he certainly displayed his love to me through the women on the retreat. When asked about my job search—persistently and often—my words of defense turned into words of honesty, and eventually into words of humble supplication. In admitting that I was worried about the future, and that I didn’t know what the next week or month would hold, I began to let go just a tiny bit of my pride and my constant urge to be in control. The response of love I felt from the women in our three-church network was amazing. It suddenly seemed like every mom wanted me to watch her children; these women may not have been able to offer me a job teaching theater, but while I search for that they offered me what they could. My guarded, shy heart was filled with gratitude.
But the moment during the weekend that truly stopped me in my tracks was toward the end. I was speaking with another mother who was questioning me about my passions and the uncertainty of my future, and as we spoke I could see her face grow more and more thoughtful. Finally, she smiled. “I know this probably isn’t helpful,” she said, “but I’m sort of jealous of you.”
“Yes,” another mom chimed in. “I know there’s something nice about having the stability, but someday you will look back on this time and remember how exciting it was.”
And there it was—God’s hand smacking me upside the head, through the words of two moms. These women were illustrating to me the function of the body of Christ—not just to listen, and learn, and meet the needs of its members, but also to realign perspectives. It’s so very important that we are a diverse body, because it means we can remind each other that God has placed us exactly where each of us is right now, and that not only is it for a purpose, but it is often quite profoundly beautiful. This is my story, filled with bumps and terror and excitement and—beyond everything else—grace.
Still, my own story doesn’t mean my individual story, off alone in my bubble of strength and competence. I have committed myself to the body of Christ, and it means peeling back the thick layers of my heart and asking for help when I need it. It means listening to women (and men) who are different from me, and accepting their advice. It means not complaining, but being the first to step forth in love. It means pushing through the veneer of awkwardness and bitterness and cynicism to see a taste of the joyful love Christ shares with us. A love that is so rich I am only ready for a bite, and so deep I can only dip my toe in, and so full I can only stand humbly in the wake of its power.
During the confession portion of the service at my church here in NYC the congregants are encouraged to kneel. I am grateful for this gentle reminder to my body—as is often the case, because my spirit and my body are not separate entities, the physical act of kneeling calls my mind into an attitude of humility and thankfulness.
Today, as the confession came to an end and I began to stand, it occurred to me that never in my life—not once—have I had the opportunity to doubt that God will hear my confession and choose to forgive me. I have never shouted prayers into a void, never expected anything except grace as a response to my confessions. I have known, from the time I was little, not only of my depravity, but also of the grace that always has been, and always will be there.
It struck me then, quite fully, how beautiful it is to be able to say that. All of the times I have thought about whether it would be better to have known a world without Christ, so that I would know the difference between the two, were washed away for a moment in the joy of that realization. How I have been held, how I have been treated with gentleness. For all that I have had periods of doubting over the years, I have known deep within myself each time I went to confess not only that my prayers were heard, but also that they were received and atoned for.
This is not a small grace. This is a huge one. Each of us has a path, and God’s hand is in each of them. But I think it’s important to recognize, from time to time, both the small graces and the large ones in one’s own life. Quite honestly, all of the fears and worries and unsureness of my present is swallowed up by this large grace, given to me—given to us all. The most beautiful thing about the grace that is true of my life is that it is true of all lives. The deepest, most troubling fear in my own life, and I think in everyone’s life, is the fear of being utterly alone. But regardless of whether man leaves or takes me, I am assured that God is constant.
I heard from a friend, recently, that she was deeply troubled by conversations we’d had, long ago in college, about predestination—the idea that God predetermines our paths before we are born. Honestly, the conversations had not been red-letter ones for me. But it seems this issue has always been of utmost importance to her, and she had come to believe that my opinion on the issue is that we as humans are locked into one path or another, with no free will to choose.
Now, it’s been quite some time since I last studied any texts on this doctrine, and I think my understanding of the issue was never more than a bit gray. But the fact that this topic has been bugging her has been bugging me, as well, and as I’ve thought about the ideas present in the doctrine of predestination, I think it actually begs us to admit a great degree of humility.
As humans we are naturally inclined to know exactly what we think about something, to wrap it up and wipe our hands and move onto the next topic. But many of the arguments for something like predestination end up saying, essentially, This is what the Bible appears to suggest. These are the conclusions I have drawn, and I can draw none further. Now I am willing to live my life in the question mark, making what choices and decisions I can, based on what I have been given. I think it’s possible to say that I believe the doctrine of predestination is true, and also say that I don’t claim to know all the answers. I think it’s possible to make bold claims about what I believe the Bible says, and also to keep an open heart, humbly acknowledging that some things have not been revealed.
So today, all of these thoughts—thoughts of grace, and doctrine, and questions—have led me to ponder how much hope there is in the knowledge that we have been given as much as we need. There are many, many things—theological and otherwise—for which we haven’t been given the full picture. But we have been given enough. I have been given enough, whether it is the fact that I will live my life with unanswered questions about doctrine, or whether it is the knowledge of the grace that bathes me through each moment, or whether it is the work and home I currently have.
I am willing to live in the question mark, because I know that it is enough. It throws me off balance and brings me up short, but it also presses all around me when I find myself on my knees, my body quietly working to bring stillness to my spirit. There are truths that are solid, that I can dig my feet into, and there are truths that live in the question mark. I am grateful for both.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria