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?

the undoing of overidentification with “normalcy”

As a substitute at a preschool, I wait around for people to get sick so that I can work. Winter break just ended and the preschool must have cleared itself of germs, so right now I’m waiting for germs to re-incubate so my source of income can return. Beyond just a source of income, the job – any job, really – provides a sense of purpose and duty. I notice that after a certain period of time, which is usually mid-morning, early afternoon, or both on a day of not working, anxiety starts to rise in my chest. What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with myself? Why am I here? More than worrying about money, my biggest struggle is that my distraction of feeling busy and important is taken away from me. I cannot hide behind a facade of doing-doing-doing because I am NOT doing anything.

I still try to hide, mind you: I occupy myself with reading, with my graduate school application, or things like writing this post. I try to spend time with friends who are usually busier than me, and I spend time with my boyfriend, who is currently not busier than me (which strangely, sometimes helps calm me down but often promotes even more anxiety – surely ONE of us ought to be DOING something!! My vicious superego, full of “shoulds,” can also be relentless on him).

None of those things that I fill my time with are bad, but when I am being honest with myself, I know that my activities are often serving the needs of what I call my “false self” (a la Thomas Keating). My false self wants to prove to my ego and the world that I am important because I am accomplishing things. My false self cannot believe that I am important simply because I am here, and that I am loved by God regardless of what I do or do not do.

My false self overidentifies with what the world considers to be normal. Normal (in our culture, at least) is to work a solid job, to earn a solid paycheck. Normal is to keep busy with social and community engagements. Normal is to have people nod approvingly when you tell them how you spend your time.

A book I have been reading recently is called Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, located in New Mexico. He has also written a book on the second half of life, about when people realize their insistent strivings for achievement and success and looking good have not actually brought them meaning. Given that I am currently planted squarely in the middle of the first half of life, I’d say I am well in tune with these demands. But if I could have the foresight to realize that ultimately, it all does not matter so much as we think it does – maybe it doesn’t even matter at all – how would that affect my self-worth about everything that I attempt to do right now?

Here’s a couple of quotables from Rohr:

“Our shadow is failure itself. Look at what we scorn. We are desperately afraid of having no power and not looking good. We fear poverty, and we fear being ordinary. It looks like failure in a success-driven culture.”

“To achieve our resting place in “normalcy,” we tend to overidentify with one part of ourselves. We reject our weaknesses and we overwork our strengths… So we ignore our true character to accommodate to what society names as successful.”

(Secretly, sometimes I think I would enjoy mostly not working and having time to read and do other things and find my own meaning, were it not for the matter of a paycheck and my gigantic, noisy superego hanging over my head telling me that I’m not important if I’m not somehow being “successful”…)

“The utter powerlessness of God is that God forgives. I hold myself in a position of power by not forgiving myself or others. God does not hold on to that position of power. God seems to be so ready to surrender divine power. God forgives the world for being broken and poor. God forgives us for not being all that we thought we had to be and even for what God wanted us to be.”

I find this to be a beautiful quote altogether, but as it relates to this post: When I cannot hide behind busyness, I disappoint myself with not being all that I want to be. I can never live up to my expectations, because they are not made to be lived up to. But God forgives us already. Can we forgive ourselves?