Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Grace Is Mine

If you were to open up my Bible to Hebrews chapter 10, you would find this note in my Bible:
cf (compare with) my life 1988-1990
Oh what grace is mine!

This note is found next to the following verses:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (vv. 26-31)

1988-1990 found me in my last two years of high school. The summer before my junior year, my father, then a pastor of a small church, was run out of his church in a most ungracious way for speaking truth. God miraculously provided a full-time job and house for our family of five (we had been living in a parsonage) within weeks.

But it wasn't God's grace at which I found myself looking. I was looking at the fact that God had said "No" to my request.

Some years earlier, I had refined my major prayer list down to two things: God, please don't let my parents die while I am young; and, please don't let my family move before I graduate from high school.

Now, when my father got run out of his church, this necessitated a move. Actually, by God's provision, we moved only about 45 minutes away, to a suburb on the other side of the large city in which we lived. But 45 minutes meant that I had to leave the high school and the status I loved so much.

You see, by 7th grade, I had had enough of this 'loser/unpopular' tag that I had acquired simply by moving into the school district a few years before, so I purposed in my heart to become--if not popular--someone everyone had to respect. This was certainly no holy aspiration; it was more like revenge. And, I accomplished this. I became active in student government and choir, played some sports (badly!), and engaged myself in just about every extracurricular activity available. I became so involved that by my sophomore year of high school, I was part of 13 different academic clubs and was an officer in half of them. And then, at the end of that year, my crowning achievement: I was elected as the vice-president of the most powerful/popular club in the school: SADD. Now this election meant that I would, upon becoming a senior the following year, become president of this club. I could not have been more thrilled. Until we moved.

Another process happened during those years, a change in my heart. You see, during my junior high years, I had become very active in our Youth for Christ club, and actually became fairly active in sharing my faith. But as the years wore on and as this unholy desire took deeper root in my heart, I unknowingly began to walk less and less by the Spirit and more and my in my flesh. By the time my sophomore year ended, I was completely off on my own, coasting in my reputation as a Christian, because it was okay to be a 'Christian' at my school. And then we moved.

At my new, 'hick' high school, it was not okay to be a Christian. Christians were openly ridiculed, and only the gooberiest kids acknowledged Christ. And in my bitterness, I decided that no one had to know that I was a Christian. And so they didn't...

I went through my last two years of high school as 'a good girl' not a Christian. And I all but dared danger to find me.

I struggled so much that first year. I had no friends (I am a very social person, and had always had a strong network of friends). I went from high grades to literally failing classes. I would ask to be excused during classes so I could go to the restroom and burst into tears. I was completely and utterly lost. During this time, one of my teachers was so concerned about me that he sent me to the school counselor. She, of course, had no idea (nor could she, as an unbeliever, understand) that my problem was a spiritual one. I was angry at God, and I knew it. I wanted Him to pay for what He did to me, and somehow I felt my bitterness was payback.

The counselor began to ask all kinds of questions about my home--fighting? abuse? etc.... However, none of those things were true. I came from a good, stable home. They weren't the issue. I was. Finally, she asked me to describe how I felt. This is one of those crystal-clear moments fixed in my mind. "I feel like I'm in a deep pit, and everyone's hand is too short to reach me." And in my mind, I added, "Including God's."

From time to time over those years, I tried to return to God, but I was never willing to do what would have to be done: Humble myself and repent of my sin. And so, I wandered, lost, into my senior year of high school.

The summer before my senior year, some of that old, unholy resolve resurfaced. I decided that I would not let the next year be like the previous one. I would find friends; I would fit in; I would make better grades; I would have fun. And so I did.

My friends were not believers, not one of them. They were, however, party-ers, and so I began to 'fudge the truth' (aka, lying) with my parents and spend the night with lots of my friends, going from their homes to parties and dance clubs. Now here's where the irony comes in. I was very clear that I was a Christian, and I was very clear that God would not let me get away with my sin for too long. I was waiting for Him to catch up with me; I could feel the hunt on, and was terrified. I knew drinking was illegal for me at 16 & 17 years old. I had once heard that some people become alcoholics with their first drink, and I was certain that if I drank, the Holy Spirit would let me reap that consequence. So, I never drank anything other than tap water at these parties. And I learned what anyone who stays sober at these kinds of parties learns: being around a bunch of drunk people is boring. This is when I graduated to dance clubs. At least that was interesting. The great irony here is that I am so pitifully 'white' that dancing is the last thing I should be doing in public, not for any reason.

Several things happened as that year drew to a close, that would be difficult to explain here, but that let me know my period of quiet rebellion was about to be drawn to an end. The Scriptures say that it is the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance, and I can testify to that. God was quietly, but unequivocally drawing me to himself.

During that time, I 'happened' to be sitting next to my father during a Sunday morning communion service. (This was atypical for me.) Just to be clear, I was definitely a member of the Body of Christ at this point, and I knew the Scriptures said that you should not take the Lord's supper in an unworthy manner (i.e., a tainted, sinful state). I Corinthians 11 warns us that God judges those who do, some by illness, some by death. I understood that this was nothing to be trifled with, so I passed on the communion plates. In a striking break from normal patterns, my father leaned over to me in the service and asked, in the gentlest of tones, "Is there anything we need to talk about?" I practically jumped! Yes, I replied, there was.

Now, I'm no fool. I was aware that I was about to confess some pretty serious sins to my parents. So I invited them out for dinner that evening. At least they wouldn't kill me in public. During that dinner, I shared with my parents my lies and my acts of rebellion. And they didn't even raise their voices. In what is still the greatest human example in my life of God the Father's grace, my father replied, "We forgive you. We won't punish you; I don't think we could do anything worse to you than God's Spirit has already done." And it was done. I don't know anyone whose parents ever responded to them in this manner when so much blatant, rebellious sin was reported to them, but I do know that it was a Spirit-directed response. Punishment I was prepared for; grace I was not. And so yet again, His Spirit called to me gently...

The job my father received from the Lord following his exit from pastoral ministry was as a full-time Bible and theology professor at a Bible college. Thus, each of his children had opportunity to receive a full college education tuition-free from this school. Since my parents wanted each of us to attend a Bible college for at least one year prior to going elsewhere, this worked out very well...from their perspective. I, on the other hand, knew that I still wasn't fulling submitting to God, and I didn't really want to be around people who were trying to do so.

When this topic came up between my father and me one day, I learned the following: "Your mother and I will still love you, but we won't support you if you don't go to Bible college for at least one year." Now, from where I stand today, this seems reasonable. A parent isn't obligated to pay for whatever education a child wants, and if they are going to pay, then they should have some say in the matter. But at the time, what I understood was this: If I chose to run off to a state school, I would be making a break with my family that I wasn't sure I want to make.

I decided that I could 'tough out' one year at Bible college.

It took me less than two days to find the other rebellious hearts at the school. It was nice to have camaraderie, but it also made me nervous. My rebellion had never been overt or flamboyant; it was secretive. I didn't like stirring the waters, and these guys had already crossed far more lines than I ever planned to. Fortunately, God was way ahead of me.

Within the first few weeks of school, this particular Bible college has a spiritual emphasis week. Chapel time is extended and there are special events all week long to help students focus on where there hearts are before the Lord. So many things pricked at my hardened conscience that week, so many tiny intrusions of God's living Word into my damaged, aching heart.

Toward the end of the week, there was a skit presented which has been duplicated many times in many places. You may have seen it. It involved three people who were driving along and then were in a car accident. All three died, and then found themselves before heaven's gate. (Go with the intent here, as the theology is pretty sketchy.) When asked why God should let them into heaven, two of them were able to say they had believed in Jesus alone, but the third had never heard this. The latter individual was dragged off stage, while yelling at the other two, "Why didn't you ever tell me? How could you not tell me?"

It was at this moment that I began to contemplate all of the people whose lives touched mine during those last two years of high school, but who never once heard one word of Truth cross my lips. And it was as if, as I looked at my hands, that they were stained with blood, not really, but metaphorically*. I had not warned one person of their impending doom. And that guilt--genuine, hard-earned guilt--became the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. At that moment, in the quiet of that service, I repented of my sin and God's forgiveness and love flooded into my heart in such overflowing degrees that even these many years later, I choke up as I recall it. I was so very young when I accepted Christ that there was no particular feeling for me on the day. But this day, I came to understand what so many have experienced when they first repent from their sin--JOY. Unbelievable forgiveness and kindness and hope and love and JOY.

I started out weeping quietly, but by the time they did the only alter call of the week, I was blind from my tears and, I suspect, rather noisy. I stumbled forward to sign my name to a "Pact of the Cross" (or something like that), but my name was completely illegible. I just wanted to express in some way that my face was turned in the complete opposite direction of the previous two years. My heart now faced the cross and my back now faced my self.

As I retreated from the front, still sobbing uncontrollably, I found myself in my father's arms--my human father--and in my hand he placed a note:
3 John 1:4
Love, Dad
This precious passage reads, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth." (KJV)

That day really was the beginning of a whole new journey for me, one that I share parts of here. Never again have I turned my back on my Savior as I did those last two years of high school.

You know, I still marvel at the grace that was mine. I was already His child, fully aware of the choice I was making, of the rebellion I was pursuing. And even now, I cannot believe that God would so freely and fully forgive me. It is one thing for the neighbor's child to spit in your face; it is a completely different thing--and much more painful--for your own child to do so.

And so we return to Hebrews chapter 10 and a note in my Bible:
cf (compare with) my life 1988-1990
Oh what grace is mine!

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (vv. 26-31)

What grace is mine. And oh, what grace it is!

One final note. A few weeks into my first semester of college, I ran across this verse, which explained two things: 1.) that feeling of being in a pit, unable to be reached by anyone including God which I expressed to my school counselor; and 2.) the sense of blood-guilt* I had as I remembered the many in my high school with whom I had refused to share Christ's gift:
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated

you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood,

your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken lies,
and your tongue mutters wicked things. --Isaiah 59:1-3


(c) 2008

*For more on this concept, see Ezekiel 3:17-21.


Sarah said...

What an emormous blessing to have both a heavenly father and earthly one who love you so much! Your dad's reaction, both at the confession and with the note just made me cry! Wow! May God give me the grace and wisdom with my own children. Thank you for sharing!

ShalomSeeker said...

S, I could not agree more, on both counts. I have two wonderful fathers! I am most blessed... -J

joyce said...

Amazing, isn't it, how when some of us are saved at a young age, we then struggle with anger as young adults? I wonder if it is a common thing.

One time I asked your Dad about anger. I loved to pick his brain with "theological questions" which often had a more practical application. Your Dad explained that often anger was a natural reaction to a real or a perceived injustice. No excuse, but I thought that was interesting.

I find that the older I get, I just cannot afford anger for very long. It saps my strength, and makes me sick. And it seems so silly to me to "kick at the goads" but I am guilty of it.

My husband used to get so exasperated with me when angry/moody and would encourage me to turn it off like it was a light switch. It seems to be something only God can take away, for me.

Beth said...

Okay, I have to type and then blow my nose, type, blow, you get the picture......I had to sqeeze my eyes shut a few time to force out the puddles of tears.....
THAT was beautiful...I already loved your dad as a teacher...what a genuinely wonderful man. --B

Bob said...

You're hardly alone. The Lord is so good about letting us fail spectacularly with our self-made, self-glorifying, self-assured counterfeit Christianity, only to lift us when we finally hit bottom -- like Simon Peter's boast just hours before he denied the Lord, who (even at the time when He was struggling with His own intense inner torment) was so tender about telling Peter that he was about to splatter hard:
"Luke 22:31-32 'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded {permission} to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.'"

BTW -- Your dad is a wonderful person, not that he ever heard that from any of us (so that's just between you and me, K?).

Lindsay said...

I'm seriously thanking God for your gift of writing!!
Isn't it so good to know truth, to want truth, and to choose to walk in truth??

Blessings to you today... and I'm totally humbled & honored by my quote on the side :)

Happy Friday!

joyce said...

Have you entertained the thought of what kind of person you would be if you had stayed at the high school where you were popular??

We moved around a lot as a kid, and my Mom always made it an adventure. I loved to re-arrange furniture, and it was like I was given a new space, a new canvas, a new template.

And we know we'd be the most arrogant parents if James was our only child. God spiced it up with his brothers, and James enjoys them so much, too.

Thanks again for your great blog ! And we feel so blessed to get to share your Dad for a few semesters. God knew we needed him.

ShalomSeeker said...

Wow, two I hear three? :-) Oh wait, that was me!

Unca B--Don't worry; as far as I know, Dad's never read my blog, so you're secret's safe! ;)

Aunt J--You know, I think God would have humbled me somewhere along the way even if we hadn't moved, it just would have been a different way. You can't serve Him and yourself, and when you're His, you gotta serve Him!

L--Thank you, and God alone be the glory! He is SO GOOD to continually call us to walk in the light as He is in the light, to shed His love 'abroad' in our hearts. I could not agree more.

Anonymous said...

It is a beautiful testimony of the grace of God. Thanks for letting me hear it again.


Anonymous said...

What I heard in that story is that you left ME!!! I was the one that helped keep you on the right path because when you left ME, you strayed. Leave it to me to take a wonderfully written, very heart felt, true confession of your beautiful life and turn it around to be about ME!!!!

In someways I think that what I said was true though. Only because I know for me, you were the light in my Junior High years. I think that our friendship stood the test of time because you left. I was silly and hung out with the wrong person in High School and probably would have ruined our friendship because of it. We were together so much during JR high and then in High School we hardly saw each other. I think we truly had a unique experience at HJH that we would not have had somewhere. Jr High was some of the best years of my life. Honestly.

I do feel guilty about not keeping in touch with you as much then. I did not know that you were struggling so much at that time until much later. I also did not know about the rest. Thank you for sharing this with us. It is nice to get to know all of these things about you.

I love blogging because for some reason it feels save to write out my thoughts and feelings. I might not share as much in person or on the phone. Or it does not come up in a conversation. Thought blogging we hear each other. It is great.

I know that God used you in at HJH and THS. I wish that you had graduated from their so we could share an alma mater. (sp) I am the math person = you are the English person. I would say that God used this time in your life to make you the wonderful person that you are now. You would not be who you are without that time.

How great of your father to write that note to you. I did not know that you took your parents out to dinner. How great that they reacted the way they did. Do you think they were aware of what you were going to say.