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July 15, 2014

Cultivating an Atmosphere of Truth & Grace...A Little Bit More of My Story

Last Sunday, one of our pastors shared an incredible message that grew out of his fresh look at the book of Jonah. The passages he read...the truths he shared...and the challenges he gave have been in the forefront of my mind ever since.

You see, this pastor knows my story...

You can read "My Story" here:

...No, he really doesn't know me all that well - but we have walked in very similar circles...we have known many of the same people...and as he opened his heart, I can not tell you how closely I related to the things that he shared.

Like me, his journey has placed him in the company of other believers who - while fundamentally believe the truth of God's word - they approach their life of faith with a mile-long list of rules in their hand. They look at others through the lens of a dogmatic, critical spirit, and though they may have good intentions and may not even realize what they are doing, their focus is solely on the external.

Truth and Grace

Our pastor shared about his upbringing - some of the fellow Christians he had known over the years - and I'm telling was like he walked into my mind and described many of my experiences. He spoke of the believers who panic over even the thought of dancing, playing cards, going to the movies, etc. The amount of makeup a woman wears is monitored...Certain kinds of haircuts are expected for men...Specific attire is required for church attendance...Most genres of music are considered evil...Eating out on Sundays is not allowed...Traveling on Sunday is thought to be sacrilegious...swimming in a pool with members of the opposite sex is considered vulgar and on and on and on the list goes. Trust me - I am in no way exaggerating.

Over the years, I have felt a variety of feelings about this kind of belief system...there have been times when it's made me laugh...there have been times when it's made me angry...but I find myself at a point when I am heartbroken for those who live in this kind of bondage to rules and regulations.

I'm so glad our Savior doesn't demand that Christians look, think, or talk exactly alike...Our Savior advocated unity, not uniformity.

Photo Credit: The Gospel Coalition
Our pastor's focus was on the importance of truth and grace always walking hand-in-hand. An understanding of truth...sharing truth with others...allowing truth to affect the way you live...these are absolutely key to the Christian life. Grace without truth deceives. John 14:6 says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." But while Jesus walked this earth sharing with others that He is the only way to eternal life, he also [time and time again - in every situation] showed grace. Truth without grace gives birth to arrogant self-righteousness. Grace must be present...always...Truth without grace destroys...and over the years I have found myself in circles where fundamental truth was present but grace was so sadly missing. Jonah accepted God's grace for himself, but resented it for others - failing to remember that God's grace is available to all~ Grace communicates truth.

While an undergraduate student, I found myself full of so much frustration that my parents encouraged me to transfer to another college. At that point, I had invested too much time in to my program that leaving would have tremendously slowed down the process of obtaining my degree...Not to mention that my scholarships had paid for it, and I was determined to stick it out in order to be able to start out on my own debt-free. To describe the institution as legalistic would be a drastic understatement. While I had seen this type of thing first-hand before, to go away to college and suddenly have a multitude of restrictions - far greater than anything I had experienced growing up - was incredibly odd. Skirt lengths were measured, the time you spent talking to the opposite sex was timed by an onlooker, any kind of facial hair was a no-no for males, and females were only allowed to wear pants at certain points in the day. These ridiculous rules only scratch the surface of my experience...if I continued on, you probably would start to doubt whether or not I was telling the truth. If someone wants to live according to these rules, that's completely their choice - but might I suggest that they call them preferences...or traditions...and not attempt to brainwash or guilt others into believing that living in such a strict/rigid way is essential to being a genuine Christ-follower...

While I realize that rules, organizational guidelines, etc. are important (Remember, I was a teacher...I totally get it.), there is a point when things go too far...when rules - not people - become the focus. I can not tell you how sad it is to see people living without freedom and joy in their life! Maybe you have witnessed this same thing - If so, you may understand the ache it places in my heart. At my lowest points during those college years, my parents would remind me to "Take notes. Let certain individuals be examples of who you don't want to be. Allow these situations to teach you how you can be different." This encouragement carried me through some very difficult days. I promised myself that - after I graduated - I would never again put myself in that type of situation, and I have not. Needless to say, I chose a different university for my graduate program - a place where yes, Christ-likeness was encouraged...but with only a few necessary guidelines...not a mile-long list of controlling rules. I went on to teach in two different faith-based educational environments that absolutely exuded grace - what warm, loving places they were! The focus did not have to be on dress code, the extracurricular activity choices of the students, etc. Because the number one priority was the heart of each and every student - everything else fell in to place. To many in the camp I have described to you [above], living this way would be very scary...they would sense a loss of control...they would fear that they didn't look "spiritual enough" to onlookers, but I would love to introduce them to a different way of approaching life...

Rules address behavior but they don't deal with the heart. They don't adjust attitudes. They don't heal the inconsistencies and fractures deep in our souls that could destroy us in the end. Grace, on the other hand, is internal. It works on a heart level. Where rules attempt to force us to do the opposite of what we want, grace actually changes what we want. It creates internal consistency and integrity. Doing what is right becomes much easier~

You see, in some "Christian" institutions - instead of seeking to cultivate a heart attitude of Christ-likeness - there is an effort to micromanage individuals to the point that they will fit in to a mold that these [I'm sure well-meaning] individuals have created. It is clear that they ultimately seek control and become incredibly frustrated when their followers do not comply, and as they cling tightly to their rules and regulations, they completely forfeit grace. They are so focused on the external that they fail to address the real needs of the lost and hurting right in front of them. I have seen this time and time again and it brings tears to my eyes as I think of particular faces...faces of individuals who did not need rules but who so craved compassion...understanding...grace. I have watched so-called leaders look right in the face of rape, divorce, addiction, depression, abortion and wag their finger while shaking their head in disapproval...It would not be fair to lump all "fundamentalists" in to the same category - I'm simply sharing what I have witnessed multiple times over in my experience~

When addiction gripped our family, who did I seek out for encouragement? Who did I ask to partner with me in prayer? Those who I knew would love our family through the trial...friends who I knew would offer compassion and understanding...I never once thought to share with those who would point their finger and demand that my loved one "clean up their act". Such a legalistic view of life offered us nothing while God's grace was more than enough. I am so thankful that God is eager to meet all of us where we matter how messy we get~

Has God used these observations for good in my life? Absolutely! I have learned the importance of looking at both sides of a story...not judging someone's situation especially when I have never walked in their shoes...showing grace because that's what Christ did and the opposite is so, so ugly~

"The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

As humans, it is incredibly easy for a critical, judgmental spirit to take root - for pride to creep in to our heart - but we can not allow ourselves to go there. We must wholeheartedly seek to be like Christ. Only He exhibits the perfect balance of truth and grace, and oh, how I long to be more like Him everyday. I am so thankful that he came to earth - not to forbid us from dressing a certain a way or eating at particular restaurants or playing the drums or going to the movies or dancing a jig - but to passionately pursue relationship.

But for your grace I could not be saved.
But for your grace I would go my way. 
I'm forever grateful that You have been faithful to me, Lord.
For your amazing grace.