Falling From Grace

falling_man

I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

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Reflections on a Woman

 

dirty sky-city-street-berlin-rain-dirtyI was thinking about that woman again this morning. I’ve thought about her a lot, actually. I am drawn to her. I can’t help myself. There is something so attractive it is difficult for me not to dwell on her.

When she entered the room everyone noticed. When she stooped down and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears their tongues began to wag. They knew her – some perhaps better than others. Certainly Jesus knew her. He knew all about her.

She was broken, a woman of the city. They called her a sinner. “How could he let a sinner touch him,” they said. Which is funny – nothing but sinners had ever touched him. After all – even some guy in the Psalms could ask, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, ESV).”

People still struggle with this woman because what she did seems to happen more than once. They act surprised. How can this happen more than one time? There are some scholars who get wrapped around the axle – trying to figure out which story is the real story – as if the writers got the details wrong or some such thing.

Actually I’m surprised this sort of thing didn’t happen to Jesus all the time. I’m surprised more men and women didn’t bust open their most prized possessions and pour them out at Jesus’ feet (this woman did and folks did in Acts 2:42-47 as well). I’m more surprised by how seldom people said “thank you Lord!” and how seldom people begged to be with him after he healed, forgave, redeemed them.

alabaster jar

But I’m not surprised by the way the “self-righteous” responded to the broken – the sinner. I turn her story over and over in my mind, trying to glean every detail. She walked into the room, a place she was not invited and did not belong. She saw his feet. Perhaps it was that they were dirty. The dirt from the road was no doubt clinging to him. Despite custom and ordinary hospitality, no one had offered water or oil for his feet.

She did. She offered her tears, her hair, and the contents of a precious alabaster jar. Most likely it was all she had to give and she poured herself and her gifts out to him. Those watching were horrified but Jesus was honored. They knew what sort of woman she was. So did Jesus. They called her a sinner. He called her redeemed. She was forgiven much; she was given what they all needed – peace with God, peace within her heart and soul.

In the Bible (and even now) people who are forgiven much and realize it are weird – especially in their devotion to Jesus. They tend to be a bit over the top in their passion for the Lord – in their desire to make his goodness known. They tend to make people who don’t think they need forgiveness – folks who believe they have been “good” enough- uncomfortable.

But then – how should a person act when they have been forgiven much? Much like the woman who couldn’t care less what the “self-righteous” think.

 Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Wrestling God

wrestling medal

I have liked wrestling for some time. No. I don’t mean WWE (although I enjoyed watching a Texas Cage Match with Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Rowdy Rodney Piper once). I mean scholastic, collegiate, Greco-Roman wrestling.http://www.clubs.psu.edu/up/wrestling/documents.htm

I wrestled in high school – gave it a go in college (that did not go well)- and helped out with a few high school teams while working for Young Life and in student ministry. Wrestling is a great sport and I appreciate what it taught me. However, all my experience on the mat did not prepare me for what I experienced when my son took to the mat this past year.

Turns out that he has more natural ability than I ever had. Each week he wrestled in a tournament and I would stand as close to the mat as I could. I stayed quiet, not wanting to shout over his coach, and settled calling out moves into my hand cupped over my mouth. I felt myself  twisting and turning, wrestling an invisible opponents as if simply by body language I could convey a message to him. In some ways I felt as I was on the mat with him and by match end, I was exhausted.

He did very well but he did not win every match. At the end of those matches I wanted to be there for him all the more – but in the right way. I wanted him to move forward. I did not want him to stay stuck in a moment he could not fix. I wanted him to reflect on what had happened, see it for what it was and use it to get better and ready for the next match. His feelings of shame and failure had to move out and be replaced by hope and confidence. I wanted him to know that he was deeply loved – win or lose.

I’ve come to understand that I am not the first dad to stand on the edge of the mat and participate move for move. While it may be difficult to understand or believe, the Old Testament book of Psalms says that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).” This Psalm reminds me that life requires a good bit of wrestling on all our parts – but especially those who have professed faith in Jesus. It also lets me know that God is very present. 

To be present means more than to sit idly by. Some folks have an image of God, if they believe in one, sitting outside of things and not involved. The Bible, however, gives other images of God – including one where God is present in the middle of wrestling matches (collegiate or otherwise), an image of God as Father with feelings and longings for his children.

To be present also means that God is “well proven” in times of trouble. He is not one that is way off but present – there in the moment. That is a great comfort in the middle of tough moments, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the troubles I’ve created or ones someone else has caused. It is good to know that God is wrestling with me and very often for me.

In fact, the New Testament book of Hebrews echoes that idea about Jesus. It points out that Jesus is not something or someone who can’t identify with us. Instead, Jesus gets what it means to be human. We don’t have someone “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV).” In other words, God does not stand way off but is very present in our lives, move for move.

If this brings up questions – just let me know. I’d love to talk about it.