Grace for the Dismayed

Anne Lamott said that writers should write what they hope to come upon, which I think means something more than I have in mind today, but its a good place to start.  When lately I notice myself searching the internet for something to read, never to come upon it, I’m hoping to come upon someone who can speak to walking in faith in the disillusionment of it.  I want to come upon an expression of my inner wandering that has already been articulated by someone before me, perhaps like a mark on a tree in the woods than avid hikers recognize as saying, “Yes, this way!”

And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Luke 9:20 

There sat John, in prison, about to be killed for no interesting or noble reason other than a shallow woman’s manipulations, and his question to Jesus was more than reasonable.  Is this right?  Is this it?  Are you going to do something?  What is the point?  Where is this headed?  Did you write this story line?  So, I did all that prophet in the desert stuff, our moms were pregnant together, and at the end…this?  And people are still mean to people (I’m about to have my head chopped off) and people increasingly are against You and divisions between people seem only to grow and the people who are supposed to represent you seem more judgmental and less generous than those who disclaim you and…

Now but not yet is the refrain.  Salvation is here now but it is not yet fully realized.  Redemption is happening but nothing has been finally redeemed, yet.  Peace is possible but often the route is through conflict.  A long desert road is the path toward the Promised Land.  Groaning with hope, as Romans 8 explains it.

And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Luke 7:22-23

But I am offended.  I’m offended by the delay.  I’m offended by the silence.  I’m offended by the lack of clarity.  I’m offended because even though all that stuff is really more honorable (blind seeing, lame walking, lepers not peeling away, deaf hearing, dead rising and poor receiving good news), I want the seat of honor at a momentary banquet and some new stuff for me.  I want those mud pies at the seaside that C.S. Lewis said we of smaller minds would be distracted in desiring.  I’m disillusioned because some stuff isn’t going my way, or the way I thought it would.

More than that moment of self-awareness about my own pettiness, is the deeper sense that my discouragement is condemning.  Once again is that exhausting feeling that I need to change something deplorable about my heart, about my attitude, about my faith.  And I can’t.  Or I don’t want to, at least not if the health and well being of my faith is dependent on my effort and right perspective.

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  Is. 41:8-10

“But you, my friend” He says!  My friend, not “my stubborn child” or “my hard hearted failure of a follower”.  He has chosen me and not cast me off.  He knows I get dismayed and am weak and am falling.  But His grace is sufficient for me.  His strength is made perfect in my weakness.  And that is what I wish to come upon…grace for the dismayed.  Its not an answer or a solution or a map nor is it a clear voice to break the long silence, and yet, oddly it is all of those.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  John 5:39-40


It is only the first day of our week at the beach and already, there is sand everywhere.  I step in an invisible pile of it on the way in to the kitchen, it has gathered on the coffee table, probably having been deposited there off of a book, it is on this table where sandy arms ate lunch and, of course, it is the marvelous scene out in front of me creating a path to the ocean.  While it is a gift to be in a house by the sea, I learned as a child in Sunday school never to build my house on the sand.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.  Matt. 7:24-27

You don’t want a shifting foundation, and we have learned how true that is with all the rain we’ve received in Atlanta in the last few years.  Roofs may leak, weeds grow at a rate that is nearly impossible to keep up with and soil shifts.  The foundation matters.  When we were living in California, we were on the Monterey Peninsula when the huge earthquake of ’89 occurred.  Surrounding towns and cities experienced severe damage and destruction, but that area sits on granite and was shaken but not shattered.

So that all makes sense and we get it without complication.  But here is the problem:  Sometimes we don’t really know the weak spots in our foundation until the storms come and there is water in the basement, or water coming through the recessed light in the hallway – which isn’t exactly the foundation’s fault but you see what I’m saying.  I can feel pretty good about my structure until its tested, at which point the cracks are revealed.

Maybe this is why I live where I do more than some need for adventure or noble sense of fearlessness.  Its really neither of those things that motivated us to move or adopt a child diagnosed positively with HIV from a complicated African country or leave private school and then return to it, in part.  It has much more to do with wanting to test these hypotheses of faith.  I fear my own propensity toward self-reliance and smugness, which need to be confronted with the realities of my powerlessness and helplessness.

When I spend hours, late into the night, driving a child around town from one family member to the next who refuse to take her in because they’ve all had it with her, and I see that she is no innocent victim in her own lies and illegal activities, all of my simplistic notions of grace, responsibility, unconditional love and sacrificial authority are confounded.

Like any respectable medical trial, a treatment cannot be deemed responsible or reliable until it has been tested in many contexts with the consideration of innumerable factors.  I realize increasingly that my own faith holds up not because I have built it on a rock and it is prepared to face any storm, but because I found a compound in which to live enclosed by a granite wall in a mild and predictable climate, enclosed in a dome which will keep out any unpleasant “storms”.  I rigged the results, so to speak, and would be considered unethical if approaching a drug trial in such a manner.

And perhaps this is the understandable criticism of American Christians in particular – we fashion our lives in such a way to allow nothing which truly tests the premises of the faith upon which we have built our lives. ” The poor are so because they have no work ethic or aren’t very intelligent.”  “The gays are wicked.”  “Minorities have a chip on their shoulders and need to get over it.”  And it turns out, without even realizing it, my faith is not built upon the rock of Jesus but the sand of particular social practice and disciplines that find their success as much in white privilege as moral fortitude.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand:  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.  And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  Mark 7:14-23

I become so settled in my methods, perspective, in my rituals, in my practices and my own understanding of right and wrong, that I forget Jesus altogether and begin to trust in my behavior more than my Redeemer.  And perhaps worse, I forget all about Jesus in the lives of those who perplex my understanding of grace, responsibility, unconditional love and sacrificial authority and want to merely offer them my methods, practices, perspective, rituals and understanding as the satisfying balm to their greatest wounds.  I offer them sand in their thirst, not Living Water.  I offer them sand on which to construct their homes, not Christ the Solid Rock.

My problem is my heart, which wants to be my own god and God to others.  Our collective problem isn’t all the symptoms that flow from that illness.  Ignorant self-reliance can’t cure itself.  The home that needs to be built on the rock is my heart, which has attempted to be a rock itself only to cause injury to my own body and those around me.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  Ezek. 36:25-27