Grace in, grace out

Three more days, and I will make my last trip home from SEI (Summer English Institute: an English-language immersion camp for international students). Though it has been a wonderful month of teaching and ministry, I am so ready to be full-time, 7 days a week, with my family again. This is a pic I took of the crew on an incredibly windy day during our vacation in Montana.

About eight weeks ago one of my friends had surgery on her hand. It didn’t heal well; in fact, the doctor had to open the wound again because a nasty infection had set in under her skin, creating a pocket of swollen tissue under what looked like healthy new flesh. Every day for two weeks after the doctor re-opened the wound, my friend had to go to physical rehab, where therapists pushed and squeezed the flesh below her thumb in efforts to get the infection out. One day during the first week I went with her so I could learn how to do this wound care over the weekend, when the rehab center was closed. As we walked in, several therapists greeted my friend, asking how her hand was, asking how SHE was.

The lead therapist, though, didn’t seem quite as friendly. She stopped by the table where another therapist was working on my friend’s hand. “You have to squeeze really hard,” she said. “Work her thumb back and forth.” When the woman left, I looked at my friend. She nodded in answer to my unspoken question. This, then, was the therapist she had told me about, the woman who had squeezed her hand so hard during therapy that she had been in tears the entire time–the woman who had seemed to be without sympathy for her pain.

That day’s therapist, gently pressing and rubbing, interrupted my thoughts. “She’s right. She’s just that way about it because her brother died not too long ago. But she’s really good at what she does. And she really is concerned that your wound heals, no matter how much it hurts.”

There are quite a few spiritual lessons in that experience, but the one that is standing out to me right now is related to what my friend said when we were back in her car.

“That’s such a good reminder to always give grace. You just don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives.”

Giving the gift of grace.

I haven’t been doing a very good job of giving grace lately. It’s been too easy to categorize, to see others as different—and to see those differences as bigger than the common humanity underneath.

In my last blog entry (so long ago—sorry!) I wrote about my tendency of the last few weeks to focus on my own image.

I’m realizing my recent lack of “giving grace” is related to that tendency.

Here I am, this month, in a new environment, doing a different job, working with mostly unknown colleagues and students, living with new roommates in a sterile townhouse—just about “everything” is new—and my impulse has been to figure out what feels most comfortable and then to snuggle in.

And when I can look “out” from that spot of perceived safety and see people who are not “in” my new little world, who are different from those of us in it, well, all the better for me. The differences don’t even need to be significant—in fact, they’re often silly—because I’m only noticing them to make myself feel safer.

So, cheerleaders with their big ‘ol bows: out. (There’s more on this in the blog entry posted before this one.)

The completely white, almost-no-diversity group: out.

The all-male, don’t-know-what-they-do-but-they-get-special-lunches-in-a-special-room group: out.

This week’s clowns with their face paint and bags of balloons (it’s a Christian clown convention; I’m completely serious): clearly out!

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit (about my feelings, not about the groups), but I’m also being true.

And it’s all related—again—to how I view myself.

About a year ago, Maddie had a time when she was flat-out mean to everyone in our family. We talked to her time and time again, but it didn’t get any better. Finally, one night as I put her to bed, the Holy Spirit nudged me to say, “Maddie sweetheart, do you know HOW much I love you? You are loved so, so much!”

She looked at me, surprise making her eyes even rounder than usual. “You do?”

It was my turn to be surprised. “Don’t you know that?”

“I thought you loved the others more than me!”

“How could you think that?”

She couldn’t really answer (it probably had something to do with being a middle child), but over the next couple of days, as Dave and I reassured her of our love and as Em plastered her room with notes that declared her love as well, Maddie’s outlook toward all of us changed.

My lack of grace-gifting is no different. It’s the smooth, closed-off cover over a wound of insecurity. When I allow my circumstances to cause me to forget that I am always a beloved child of God, I act just as Maddie did. I point out differences instead of seeing common humanity and the image of God. I focus on outward appearances rather than looking into eyes and getting glimpses of hearts. I separate from others rather than seeing them, too, as beloved children.

I WANT to give grace. I want to love and see others as Christ did and does. That’s a good, good desire, because when we, the body of Christ, give gifts of grace, it is a tangible gesture of the God-who-sees-us, the God-with-us.

But grace-gifting is NOT possible if I pretend my painful insecurity doesn’t exist. The healing skin on my friend’s hand hid the infected tissue beneath. In a sense, it was almost as if the infected skin NEEDED that healthy top layer to protect it from pain. But that top layer also kept the infection from being detected, kept it from being healed. My human infection of insecurity and people-pleasing does the same. It causes me to seek out a smooth outer skin of belonging and group conformity. That allows me to hide my insecurities. And this hiding keeps me separated from others, even, truly, from the group I’ve attached myself to.

I have to receive the gift of grace—revealing grace—before I am ever able to give it. Then grace continues its work in my heart, cleansing the revealed wound, healing it.

Inner grace–revealing, cleansing, healing–results in outer grace.

Grace in, grace out.

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