When I was little, I remember being aware of Jesus all the time. Even before I ever made a public profession of faith, I felt Him in my house, in my bedroom, at school, and on the playground. When I went to my first children's church at 9 years old (my family had attended the Catholic church until that point), my heart leapt with joy at the discovery that we were going to spend the entire time singing songs and making crafts about Jesus. This was unlike anything I'd experienced in Catholic church and catechism. A year later, I was baptized, and three years later, in junior high, I learned the official lingo of what it meant to have a "personal relationship with Jesus."
It's funny to me, typing this now, because it's right around that same time of learning about a personal relationship with Christ that I shifted from an acute awareness and love of Jesus to an overwhelming awareness and reverence for God the Father. I had just gotten my first adult Bible, a soft blue leather New King James (I'd received a hardcover NIV with illustrations as a baptism gift in my younger years) and had also begun a prayer journal, always beginning each prayer with "Heavenly Father." With my new Bible, I began reading much more of the Old Testament, and books like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Hosea and Joel opened my eyes to the holy and awe-inspiring nature of our God. I thirsted for truth, strove to do what was right in the sight of God, and saw the world through a pretty black-and-white filter according to His principles.
It's pretty amazing the way this view of God affected my work. One of the jobs I held in that first year out of college was a part-time writing instruction post for the honors program at my college. After the first round of paper grades went through, I discovered the students had monikered my name in such a way that basically translated in plainspeak into something like, "Has your paper been put through the blender yet?"
It was true. In every meeting with students, I cared most about the ideas they had chosen and whether they had hit upon the truths of them. I ran those meetings like I was their adversarial opponent. On the pages of every paper I graded, I cared most about whether they'd examined every possible angle I could perceive of their argument, were using the English language with authority and correctness, had sourced their citations properly, and had used the absolute minimum number of words necessary to communicate their point. I remember a colleague approaching me after the first semester's papers had gone back, saying, "You're pretty tough. I took a look at one of the papers you graded, and in a sentence that had fifteen words in it, you had sliced through at least half of them. But when I read what was left, you were right: they could have said the same thing in half the words, and it's probably good that they learn that."
I thought so, too.
By the second year, though, things had started to shift a little bit. I had begun to spend a lot of time in the Gospels. (You'll remember that I shared my realization of a complete lack of understanding of grace and lack of connection to the Second Person of the Trinity. I figured that one way to rectify this lack was to go straight to the source and spend time getting to know Him better.) As I watched Jesus walk around those pages, I became overwhelmed with the idea of the disciples spending the time they did with Him. They got to converse with Him, hear His voice, share long meals with Him, walk long distances together, and even touch Him. It hardly seemed possible, and I became incredibly jealous. (I know this sounds silly, but it's true.)
The other thing I noticed was His gentleness, sincerity, and grace. He who was the perfect embodiment of God and followed the Law without error still knelt and forgave an adulterous woman, still let a woman with an issue of blood touch His cloak, still let a woman who'd been a prostitute wash his feet with oil and tears, still reached out and touched a leprous man, and still chose to hold closest to Him a group of fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners who often strayed into purposeless fights among themselves.
This was not a man who campaigned with zeal for some black-and-white principles. In fact, He criticized most sharply the ones who were doing just that, and it seemed those folks completely missed the boat. No, He came to offer something else, and the best word to describe what He came to offer is grace.
If that was what He came to offer, then that is what I wanted to learn how to receive from Him, and it's also what I wanted to learn how to offer to others. There seemed to be a certain amount of rest to be found in grace; through the pages of the Gospels, Jesus doesn't seem preoccupied with making sure people "get it" and "shape up" and "do better." He seems more concerned with meeting people where they are, listening to the stories of their lives, and offering them water for their thirsty souls in that place. This is gentler and more caring than the other way of doing things could ever be, and it seemed to actually do something in the hearts and lives of the people He met. Maybe relaxing into such a gift myself was the best way to let Him do something in me, too.
I immediately saw this value shift affect my work again. My conversations with students became more personal. I reached out to those I saw imprisoned in the same performance trap I'd known so many years. I cooled a little bit on the grading (but not a lot). And I started experiencing the dysfunction and terror that I wrote about in my last post.
It might sound surprising that those gasps and shakes happened after so much good had been accomplished in my spirit and understanding. It was surprising to me, too. I've come to see at least two reasons for this, though. The first is that understanding, or knowledge, does not equal transformation, in the same way you hear people say having knowledge of a wound does not make it healed. I had simply become aware of what God was about and what He was after, but I still had to walk through the process of change.
The second reason is that all of this change resided on such a relational level. I could learn to receive this kind of care from God because I knew it was His essence and what He wanted to offer. I did not, however, believe that the rest of the world would value or offer or want to receive this same thing. It was in my person-to-person relationships at a young age that I'd learned the danger of vulnerability. It was in this world that I'd also ingested the notion that my invisibility and perfection made all things well. And now I was trying to become more visible, to share myself more transparently in the world, and to out my inability to be perfect. I didn't want to live in those prisoned walls anymore, but I really didn't know if the world would go along with that decision.
I stumbled along for many years in this integration process. (Say, five?) It's only been in the past two years or so that things have clicked and that a greater freedom has been released in me. The funny thing is, I went back to that same college honors program two years ago, after about three years away, and though I stumbled and fell on my face a lot in my first semester back, mostly for all of these same reasons I've been sharing above, God set my spirit free in the second (and last) semester I was there.
And actually, thinking about it now, I don't think it's any coincidence that it's during that period of time that my relationship with the Holy Spirit began to flourish. You know how I told you I grew jealous of the disciples when I started camping out in the Gospels those many years ago? Well, somewhere within that span of time I was stumbling and inching along into grace, I wrote a poem about that jealousy. I'll share it with you here but can now preface it by saying that God, over time, responded to my heart's cry for greater nearness to Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit. I now cannot imagine getting through my life without the power and peace and intercession the Holy Spirit affords my faith and understanding and relationships. It's so incredible to me now to see it, but this must be what Christ meant when He said, "It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you."
What is our consolation,
now that You've left us for heaven,
and we'll never
walk on water
or clutch firm your heavy garment
or behold your gentle gaze
in silent wonder?
We're left only with this history
and this mysterious,
meant to be our only
God's invisible breath.
Breath of God,
if you are equal,
just as worthy of His glory,
fill yet up the
part of me that