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Gift and Grace

A friend of mine is going through a mid-life career transition and asked me to be a reference for him as he applies for jobs and considers his course for the next stage of the journey. Today, I was reading over his response to a series of questions about his biography and his theology, and was stopped in my tracks by this paragraph.

I have been learning little by little that there is an unrepeatable gift and grace in the life of each person and in each circumstance regardless of race, culture and creed, or of how broken, wounded, or sin damaged the person or circumstance might be. The depth I can know this in others is only as deep as I know it in myself and in my own circumstances. The recognition and affirmation of this truth is often the beginning of healing and transformation.

There is an unrepeatable gift and grace in the life of each person.

People who are easy to like and people who are not. People who are inspiring and influential, and people who are irritating and energy-sucking. People for whom grace seems like second nature, and people who seem to have an angry, grimy cloud of anger and resentment that follows around everywhere they go. The merciful and the entitled. The kind and the proud. The selfless and the selfish. The peacemakers and the conflict escalators. The self-assured and the perpetual victims. The givers and the takers.

There is an unrepeatable gift and grace in the life of each person. If we will take the time to look, to call it out, to tend and nurture it.

But…

The depth I can know this in others is only as deep as I know it in myself and in my own circumstances

This part is perhaps the harder part. Do we believe that we, ourselves, are channels of gift and grace? That we exist because of a love that precedes, surrounds and sustains, and draws us forward? That we are and can be a source of goodness and peace to those around us? Or, do we secretly (or not so secretly) believe that our lives are a curse and not a gift to those around us, that we are channels not of grace but of grim judgment and the placing of heavy burdens?

My friend’s response quoted above seems wiser and more profound each time I read and re-read it.  We cannot see truly see each person we encounter as gift and grace if deep down we cannot see  ourselves as a conduit of these same things.

Which makes sense, I suppose, given that the great commandment is to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  This is, as my friend wisely states, the path to healing and transformation. Because it is the path to and from God.

——

The image above is taken from the 2014-15 Christian Seasons Calendar.  It is a piece entitled “Grace,” by Candice Canessa.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Beautiful sentiments indeed but are they true? Does grace abide in each person or only those who proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior? Wouldn’t the understanding that grace was an active agent in our lives require faith?

    Affirming all, when some purposefully make destructive choices, seems wrong to me. In these cases couldn’t rebuke be the first loving and logical response? In His temptation our Lord’s responses to Satan don’t seem to be informed by the above quote. He is terse and rebuking. Likewise, on several occasions the Lord chooses silence over engagement….”for he knew what was in their hearts”…

    To those so commissioned and this commission only understood through careful prayer and spiritual formation I would agree wholeheartedly…”we are channels of gifts and grace”….for others it may be a dangerous path to consider.

    Yes it is always true that we allow ourselves to be surprised and rejoice over whatever means God chooses to reveal His grace. Orthodoxy is intended as prudent boundary for people but never to God. That being said I have yet to meet the adult person sufficiently humble so as to rightly discern the difference between self understanding and God’s understanding, who hasn’t spent years praying and listening. Even then confusions occur.

    The above quote’s sentiment may well be more altruism/humanism then spiritual discernment. I don’t know for sure. The beauty of this quote, to my mind at least, is in it’s mercifulness…”no matter how broken or sin damaged”….and yet along with His perfect mercy is His perfect justice.

    On reflection, it is as it has always been for us I suppose, a bewildering ( to us) tension between seemingly conflicting values. Universal mercy and universal justice.

    I have come to believe one thing though, activism is a dangerous path. Turns more saints to sinners then sinners to saints. Ours is the way of the cross. We triumph over suffering through endurance.

    We assist in God’s redemptive plan best, it seems to me, when our first priority is to share in suffering. Redress comes later.

    May 29, 2015
    • I understand my friend to simply be referring to the image of God that is present in each person, regardless of their religious convictions. His is a spirituality that is deeply shaped by the practice of Jesus who taught and modelled that each human being is a treasure to be loved and appreciated, and the recognition that this same Jesus was able to recognize gifts and grace in unlikely places (a “dog” Canaanite woman, for example [Matthew 15:21-28]).

      May 29, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        The Canaanite women’s hunger for faith redeemed her…..”Who are my Mother, my brothers and my sisters”…I hear a Jesus who teaches that God’s ways are a treasure to be loved and all that do are so treasured and so loved.

        May 30, 2015
      • Absolutely, Paul.

        I’m not quite sure what you’re arguing for here. Are you suggesting that Christians should not look at non-Christians as gifts and image bearers of God?

        May 30, 2015
  2. mike #

    Wow…. so very Powerful and personally moving.

    “If we will take the time to look, to call it out, to tend and nurture it.” I confess that I don’t practice this, in fact I’m always intent on seeing the bad in people/Life, God help me.

    I tend to act-out as one of those people “who seem to have an angry, grimy cloud of anger and resentment that follows around everywhere they go.” I don’t like being this way but I can’t seem to overcome it. I would like to use this opportunity to publically ask God for a Divine intervention in my life. Lord,Give me Grace to see the Grace all around me.

    ” We cannot see truly see each person we encounter as gift and grace if deep down we cannot see ourselves as a conduit of these same things.”
    .
    Christ have mercy

    May 29, 2015
    • I’m not always great at practicing this either, Mike. God help both of us.

      May 29, 2015
    • mike #

      I drove to Gethsemani Abby monastery for some focused reflection late yesterday afternoon. The monastery was “closed” to the public due to a large contingent of visiting Buddhist Monks on retreat there. Thankfully I was not asked me to leave. I went into the library and picked out a book and proceeded to read a most soothing passage that spoke directly to me:

      “The World and the Church are in process. So are we as individual Christians. Our life in Christ as guided by the Spirit is not a static given, a life which is received in baptism and then meant to be clung to, merely to be guarded against loss by avoiding serious sin. This Life is rather meant to enter into a dynamic Process of evolutionary growth.
      We are meant to be in a continual process of becoming through a deeper radicalization of Faith, Hope and Love. True, one dimension of the Grace life is the fact that it is a stable given–but not a static given. We have a thrust toward that which is to be achieved. We are meant to be in a process of becoming the “more”. We do not suddenly achieve full maturity in Christ. And even after a relative full maturity in Christ is attained, this maturity can always take deeper root.”

      from “The Spirit is Present” by Edward Carter, S.J.

      May 30, 2015
      • Great stuff, Mike. I’m working with the text from John 3 and the story of Nicodemus for this week’s sermon. One of the commentaries I read this week talked about how an obsession with the “being born again” aspect of this text is roughly akin to placing a proudly framed copy of our birth certificate on the wall and admiring it until we die. He said something to the effect of, “Yes, you’re born. Now grow, become, mature!”

        Glad the Buddhists allowed you to stay. 🙂

        May 30, 2015
      • mike #

        P.S. I love the cover art work for this Post!

        June 1, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Good question, Ryan. I suppose I am trying to work out my understanding of everyone as “image bearers” and the relationship “image bearing” has with judgment/justice.

    More specifically when “image bearers” would willfully choose to become “image distorters”.

    God’s mercy and forgiveness is perfect. Mine not so much. Both with myself and with others when I trend towards some idea of universal forgiveness and mercy it has sometimes had an enabling effect. Rather then being an agent of grace and repentance my tolerance and forgiveness seemed to act as an advocacy for sin. Sometimes I’ve been a determined sinner exploiting the noble sentiments expressed by your friend. Sometimes I watch as others seem to willfully do the same.

    Sometimes rebuke feels like the right loving response. Sometimes it feels right to remind myself and others trapped in sin that the message is intended to be universal but that not all who hear it will be saved. Salvation is not universal and insofar as we have influence over God’s perfect judgment, sin matters.

    Sometimes though, rebuke feels wrong. Hypocritical. Gasoline on fire so to speak. A poison used to undermine righteous self loving….what to do, what to do…..

    So I will continue to pray and ask for wisdom that I might be useful to the Kingdom. That my hands in some small but true way, are God’s hands.

    I can believe everyone is an image bearer but still feel convicted that all Spirits must be tested.

    Thank you for this post.

    May 30, 2015
    • From my perspective, every human being bears God’s image and every human being is capable of defacing and distorting this image. Indeed, the only one who ever bore God’s image perfectly was Jesus, so we are all simultaneously bearers and distorters to some degree or another. At the end of the day, I follow One who commanded me to love my neighbour as myself, even when my neighbour is my enemy. This would seem to require that I be open to receiving from God, even in the most unlikely of encounters.

      I love the way you put this:

      So I will continue to pray and ask for wisdom that I might be useful to the Kingdom. That my hands in some small but true way, are God’s hands.

      Me too, Paul. Me too.

      May 31, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thank you for your kind words, my brother. After every discussion here or elsewhere let the faithful agree to be God’s hands….somewhere I hear a Jewel song…. 🙂

        …”we are all simultaneously bearers and distorters”…as concise an understanding of the doctrine of Original Sin as a man needs. You speak the undeniable truth. Thank you for this wisdom.

        ….”At the end of the day, I follow the One who commanded me to love my neighbor as myself, even when my neighbor is my enemy”…
        another undeniable truth.

        “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”…Forgiveness; the ethic of Our Lord. The commandment of our Lord.

        Only within the context of forgiveness is human love (however imperfect) a reflection (however dim) of God’s love.

        And yet at times God’s love is reproving, correcting faults. Refining as if by fire. Love is more than just approval and affection….

        So I thank you with all my heart for being a steadying, rational voice that reminds me to still always seek affectionate responses, particularly when my Spirit is moved to admonish.

        Do you sense a great battle ahead? I do. I feel a great instinct to “shape up” and get ready for battle.

        Maybe not a “Plains of Mordor” kind of thing…”who can know the day, the time, the hour”…but something akin to “Helms Deep”.

        Sometimes I think maybe, “Helms Deep” has always been going on and I was just too self absorbed to notice.

        June 1, 2015
      • Thank you, Paul.

        You say,

        And yet at times God’s love is reproving, correcting faults. Refining as if by fire. Love is more than just approval and affection….

        Yes, it is. I am happy for God to play this role; I am less confident in human beings’ ability to discern the same. I’m not suggesting that our love should never do this. I just think that we should be more reticent than we often are.

        Do I sense a great battle ahead? Not really, to be honest. In my better moments, I believe Jesus when he says, “fear not.” The world has always been a very bad and terrifying place and a place soaked in beauty and glory. At the same time. I don’t know how or when the end will come or what it will look like, but I am convinced that the best way to prepare for “battle” is to lay down the weapons we prefer and choose the ones that Christ himself used.

        June 1, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    “Stable, not static”…I believe you offer truth here, Mike. Thank you. It is a very important reason for why I returned to my Catholic faith decades ago. In tradition there is stability, a more certain understanding of the uncertainties of faith. 🙂 Yet for some tradition has become synonymous with, “static”. I think they are wrong. The faith cannot change but must always adapt to context. Insofar as humanity ought to perceive Church. To cut ties with tradition is to cut ties with stability.

    God can and does work outside the boundaries of His Church. Other wedding guests can replace the invited. It happened with Israel it can happen to the Church.

    Saying that though I still feel that Christian disunity is a scandal undermining the stability of God’s Kingdom.

    PS. I would be vary wary of Catholic contemplatives sharing worship space with Buddhist Monks unless for the purpose of bringing them to the fullness of Christ. Ecumenism and or inter faith dialogues must not become forums of relativism or the means by which the truth is diluted.

    No one comes to the Father other than through the Son. And unless you drink His blood and eat His flesh the Son is not with you.

    May 30, 2015
    • Paul Johnston #

      So, I reread this one a few times and I have to laugh a little. Some pretty audacious claims here. 🙂

      Even a scrappy guy like me knows well enough that to pick a fight with just about everybody is a mostly losing proposition. Unless of course you are Mel Gibson as William Wallace…… 🙂

      So I have this idea, maybe dream, maybe vision, maybe prophecy that when Jesus comes to meet you in death, he will first bring His Holy Self to you. It will be kind of a good thing that you are dead given that the ecstasy you will encounter would have killed you were you still living.

      He will also bring His Cup and His Bread. With a desire you never knew when living, you will drink His blood and eat His flesh.

      He will do for His Flock in death, what His broken Church wasn’t able to do for them in life.

      June 1, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        … His Blood, His Flesh….

        June 1, 2015
      • mike #

        “He will also bring His Cup and His Bread. With a desire you never knew when living, you will drink His blood and eat His flesh.
        He will do for His Flock in death, what His broken Church wasn’t able to do for them in life.”

        Wow,Paul. That’s Beautiful,man. …Maranatha.

        June 1, 2015
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Maranatha, Indeed. His peace be with you, Mike. 🙂

    June 1, 2015
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Stand for the truth without judgment or prejudice. Peaceful resistance. Martyrs if called….”those who live by the sword die by the sword”…If I interpret the wisdom in your words in this way, I am in support of them. Perhaps you are not comfortable with this interpretation. 🙂

    Context is so much a part of the equation. As a Roman Catholic I belong to a massive infrastructure of 1.2 billion people ( so we say) and yet so many places where we purport to be, have progressively moved to a more worldly and less spiritual understanding of life. For the many I see culture informing faith and not faith informing culture.

    So is a “battle” (Ephesian’s 6 style 🙂 ) immanent. From my purview, I hope so. The alternative seems a slow, certain erosion of the faith, until it’s death. (For the many)

    The evangelical leadership and similarly minded Protestant leaderships, to me, have always been a blight on faith. I see them, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, conspiring with the world to reduce the faithful to literal handfuls of redeemed. Them and some of those like them. Pharisees to the bitter end.

    This faith leadership in the US has become a toxic blend of patriotism, materialism and narrow self interest. The 13th tribe of Israel. And hundreds of millions of American Catholics are for the most part, complacent. Rather see themselves as progressive Democrats, then as true Catholics. Both groups purporting to be Christians giving to “Caesar” what belongs to God.

    It is our job to bring Christ, through Sacrament and Word to, “the ends of the earth”. We are to operate as if salvation is universal. (Only God will determine it’s boundaries.)

    And therein lies the rub. How does one bring an increasingly abused and discredited message to the many. Unless the messengers shape up (the battle always begins from within) who will be convicted enough by us to experience the Lord.

    The Lord has always waited on us to bring Him.

    Our mission is failing. We must repent and renew. We must find courage to truly live a Gospel life and encourage and exhort others who say they are of Him, to live similarly.

    Make no mistake, the other side is at war with us. It always has been and always will be. We must fight as I hear you say but it would do you good to hear me when I tell you, we must fight.

    A persecution is coming. Babylon is coming. Wrong actions and inactions have consequences.

    God will soon be refining His people.

    June 2, 2015
    • Make no mistake, the other side is at war with us. It always has been and always will be. We must fight as I hear you say but it would do you good to hear me when I tell you, we must fight.

      As Anabaptists, we have always preferred the concept of “bearing witness.” This is our task. As I’ve said, I’m not at all convinced that our historical moment is unique. As you say, war has always been with us. And our job is to be the peacemakers that Jesus called “blessed,” to fight with the weapons of love and truth.

      June 4, 2015

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