Extravagant grace

Just when you think the old religious metaphors don’t work for you anymore, they slap you upside the head on a quiet Sunday morning in Quaker meeting.

It’s just the story of the prodigal son, returned home to his father who welcomes him in with a new robe and a feast. The father, full of extravagant grace, never questions a bit of why he was estranged for so long or what in the world he did with his entire inheritance.

It’s just the story of the woman and the alabaster jar, who cracks open a jar of the most expensive perfume and pours it over Jesus’ feet in front of his disciples, seemingly no rhyme or reason for doing so until Jesus explains it.

It’s just the phrase, “God wants to give us extravagant grace.” The word echoes. Extravagant. Extravagant.

The word itself is extravagant, parading itself across the tongue with its arms flung wide open, tangoing its way solo across the stage. Look at me. I’m almost too much to handle!

Extravagant makes me uncomfortable with how out of proportion it seems, how nonsensical, how wasteful; how it throws care to the wind while making decisions; how it lives in the moment, in the right-now, not a care for judgment of the past or future.

Nothing was extravagant in my family growing up. We are serious, German folk; hardworking, penny-pinchers, you-get-what-you-deserve type of people. We are individualistic; we emphasize justice more than mercy. As children, we got water and a burger at Burger King going out to eat. French fries were extravagant. You don’t get things for free; you work for what you get.

It seems ironic that it was a German, Martin Luther, who helped turn the wheel of religious history toward a period where grace was no longer supposed to be earned, worked for, or paid for, but was God’s free gift to give out. Maybe my German side needs to reach far, far back to tap back into this notion of an unmerited free gift, and apply it not just to God’s love and grace for us and our wrongdoings (which can remain in the realm of the intellectual), but to all of life (which must somehow be lived, embodied, experienced). How do I experience extravagant grace in my real life?

It is very difficult to leave my anti-extravagant mindset once it has been ingrained into me. On my conscious level, I am trying to change my beliefs about humanity, about worth, about what life is all about. Consciously, I believe that every life has value, regardless of what it can contribute. Consciously, I believe we are more than human “doings”; I believe we do not have to justify our existence by what we can do or produce. Consciously, I believe that being is enough; that maybe learning how to simply be in this exact moment is everything.

Unconsciously, though, I am still captive to the cultural beliefs I grew up in. I too often measure out love and respect by what I see produced. I work hard and stay busy (or if not legitimately “busy,” at least occupied) because it is the way I know to feel good about myself. I don’t really believe in punishment, but it’s still my first inclination when someone has harmed me or another. I live in a world of proving myself, and I am afraid I judge others by what they can prove, as well.

But while this has been a secure place for me to reside in for much of my life, it does not provide ultimate satisfaction. It does not truly allow me to love: neither myself nor other people. I can say I believe in forgiveness, but until I experience the letting-go of the need to prove and diving in to all that is unmerited, I don’t think I really know forgiveness.

So like I heard a friend express recently, there are phrases and concepts in Christianity that continue to draw me in, even as I push other aspects away. Extravagant grace is a cup of water in a desert, giving me life, challenging me to walk just another mile and trust that more water might be waiting at the end. It feeds my thirsty soul and my inherent need to know that there might be more to all of this than what I can see. That there is more meaning to life than the purpose given by my cultural conditioning. I am challenged to embody just a little bit of extravagant grace, even when it feels impossible and nonsensical and maybe even risky.

cup runneth over

I’m tired of living in my merit-based world. I want to step into a world of extravagant grace, even when I am afraid to do so. And I might not know how to live this way, but I want to learn along the way.

Is anybody with me?

7 thoughts on “Extravagant grace

  1. How beautifully put. Your public display of genuine introspection is as unexpected as it is liberating and healing. Thank you. I’m in!

  2. This is a great post. The burger king bit is typical, but also do recall visits to Cold Stone for extravagant ice cream. Also, you had lots of family vacations to unusual places (WY, MT, ID, WA, OR, CA, AZ, CO) Nicaragua (in between your 2 months there), HI, DC, FL, Europe, and others I have forgotten. Dad

  3. Dad also says, as a parent, lots of soda is never good, unless you want moody kids with sugar highs. French fries are not healthy either. Add, MA, ME, NY, IL, PA, OH, IN, and more to the states you have been taken to by those miserly parents. But still good to see how big of an impression the little things make 🙂

    1. Hi Dad,
      Agreed, lots of soda and french fries don’t really make the cut for health food. I probably sound like I’m taking for granted many of the good things I got in childhood (and today), and I do take many things for granted that would be good to appreciate. I’ve seen a much higher percentage of the country than most people have! But the point of the post is not about where I’ve been, or ice cream or french fries. The “little things,” as you said, may make a big impact, but the purpose of using the french fry thing was just an illustration. What I’m trying to write about is the attitude and feelings behind those things. As I wrote, this stuff is in our whole culture, this German, Anglo-American culture of self-sufficiency, “I deserve,” “I have to work for,” “I have to prove” sort of ideas. You’ve told me stories about growing up, about birthday celebrations being such low-key affairs. Ask Chris. She will know what I’m talking about. These things get passed down generation to generation. And now, I am acknowledging that those things are now a part of me. I am selfish and stingy in ways that I don’t like, and I think I have to earn my way into everything. But the place I want to move to is one of more radical, abundant grace, where I know I’m okay – I’m enough – just because I exist. That was the purpose of this writing. But thank you for reading and offering your thoughts.

  4. I love the picture!!! Living water, overflowing, never thirsty, satisfied.

    I agree with you about how hard it is to feel worthy of extra – I often hear people describe such things as guilty pleasures. Why guilty? How much is OK to have? Americans can be very materialistic and seem to feel that they deserve the most and the best – and those things leave us feeling empty If we are trying to fill a void. It will never be enough. So the question of how much is OK to have, to spend, to own is confusing and can produce feelings of “not deserving”, “not worthy” and guilt.

    It’s interesting that you make a correlation between physical abundance and spiritual abundance. I wonder if withholding physical pleasure from a child produces the idea that feeling lavishly satisfied is not OK, which carries into adulthood, leaving us with an internal conflict of wanting more, but feeling undeserving of the more that we want. “You can have ice cream but not sprinkles. You can have a hamburger but not fries.”

    I recently bought a used car. I wanted all of the extras – leather seats, heated seats, blue tooth. My son accused me of being vain. I ended up buying a car that was 3 years older so that it would be “fully loaded” for the same amount of money. Extravagant – yes! Why not?

    Years ago I was giving my 2 year old niece chocolate milk. It was going to be her 1st time tasting chocolate. I skimped on the amount of chocolate that I put into her milk. My thought was, “She’s 2 years old, she doesn’t need the full amount.” Her mother who was watching said, “Don’t skimp on the chocolate. I want her to really enjoy her 1st taste of chocolate.” She took the syrup from me and squeezed an abundance into her cup of milk. I see God as being like that. He wants us to enjoy lavish pleasures. The Bible talks of feasts, wine, and parties.

    But I don’t see this blog as being about french fries, desserts and lavish physical pleasures. The point is that we don’t have to have thirsty and hungry souls that are always striving – and for what? So we can appease our guilt? So we can feel deserving of an overflowing cup of unconditional acceptance, of being enough?

    I see this as being the heart of this lovely blog. We are enough period, because we exist. And because we are enough, we don’t have to earn love and acceptance. We can freely receive spiritual nourishment in abundance.

    Thanks Christine for this post. It has caused me to reflect on the abundance of grace, and how being raised with societal ideas of ‘earning’ grace or good things can inhibit our ability to freely accept the bounty that is available to us.

    1. Oops. I already wrote this and it disappeared. Round 2…
      Thanks so much for your comment! You can write my blog for me now. 🙂 I really did feel inspired by what you wrote. We have a strange paradox in our culture, of wanting stuff but feeling guilty for getting it. It seems we are trying to feed a spiritual or an emotional void by filling it with “stuff,” yet have a guilt complex about doing so… though some people may repress the void well enough that they experience less guilt.

      I love the example of the chocolate milk. I can totally relate, from my experience babysitting (oh yeah, and with myself!). I have a tendency to skimp, to say “you don’t need this.” What I learned from working at an amazing preschool, plus some of my readings, is that kids have an actual capacity to learn to regulate themselves, if only they are given space to do so. For instance, if they are offered food but also taught to be attentive to their bodies. We just don’t trust them to stop or know what they need, which I think then creates a cycle where they actually don’t know those things anymore. And many adults, including myself, are not so in tune with the needs of our bodies, or we eat to fill emotional needs instead of physical ones. Or we become so restricted that everything has a guilty tinge to it. Oh, what would life be like if we could live with joy and abundance??? If we really and truly understood that we are enough, that we have enough, that we are really, really loved??
      Thanks again for your reflection.

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