Lines in the Sand

I drew a line in the sand today — with God.

In my Christian experience I have wrestled with the concepts of grace, love and forgiveness. I have found it difficult to consistently forgive myself and those who have wronged me with any sense of permanence. I have been consoled with the notion that I am imperfect until final redemption and that God is giving me time to “learn to forgive,” even while failure to forgive on my part would supposedly render me unforgiven.

I have spent years striving to fully obtain the grace of God, being careful to eliminate all “roots of bitterness” and any hunger for revenge. However, by following popular Christian teaching all I have really managed to do is defer the bitterness and desire for revenge with the reasoning that God will grant me justice after death. I have imagined redemption in the form of my adversaries getting what is coming to them (assuming they remain evil and unrepentant until the point of death). This so-called redemptive reservation has been used to motivate forgiveness to those who find it difficult.

Of course the command to love ones enemies is also a “motivator” toward forgiveness. But I have been unable to escape how that love feels false, if not impossible in these circumstances. How can I love someone while simultaneously anticipating retribution in the form of their demise? If the justice of God comes primarily in the future sense as many pastors scholars and laymen indicate then this is my only choice. I must live in the tension of already loving and forgiving my enemies and not-yet witnessing the judgment to come to evil in the world.

This is where I draw the line. I cannot serve a god who demands that I love and forgive my enemies while, by the very nature of his so-called sovereignty, he is not held to the same standard. Am I supposed to somehow surpass his goodness and god-ness by loving those who wound me while he reserves judgment and punishment for those who do not repent and confess him? If I am to forgive for my own good, at the least to make myself forgivable, how is it he reserves forgiveness until confession and repentance take place? Is this just a divine privilege we don’t have access to? Is this reservation somehow part of the mystery of his love? I do not understand any longer how this portrayal of God’s heart holds any positive appeal.

However… if God’s heart is truly portrayed from the cross in the suffering, choking words, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”… if His heart is portrayed in a man pleading forgiveness for those who are unrepentant, actively mocking and gambling for his garments… if this is the example we are meant to follow, extending forgiveness even before the sacrifice has been made… then my objections are silenced. In this portrayal of God’s heart there is a radical redefinition of justice, one that exposes evil and violence by the absorption of it, rather than eventual retaliation in apocalyptic fashion.

This portrait of gods heart of forgiveness is an embodiment of love that evaporates my bitterness and inexplicably compels me to drop the weapons of self-protection I have been clinging to. When beholding love like this I am inspired to free myself of every hope for revenge. I want to follow Jesus into death, extending love and forgiveness to those who least deserve it and have not even asked for it – because he first showed me how.

But I cannot serve a god who demands that I love and forgive my enemies while he punishes his eternally. I am finding glimpses of hope that I don’t have to.

As I have encountered various portrayals of god put forth in the current theodicy of consensus, I find myself drawing more lines. I cannot serve a god who will go to any length of coercion and manipulation in order to elicit some form of love from his creation. I cannot serve a god who will then challenge or test that love through the sanctioning of evil and suffering inflicted on those he intends to win. I cannot serve a god who uses my life as a means to fill heavenly trophy cases in his triumph over evil.

Drawing lines in the sand feels like a scary thing to do, but I can’t seem to stop myself from doing it. I fear that I will be accused of attempting to put god in a different box. Or perhaps I would be called arrogant for insisting that there must be more to him than we see. More than what we have been conditioned to see.

Then again I wonder if I am not the first to draw lines in the sand. The religious leaders of Jesus time dangled a broken woman in front of him, daring him to contradict their so-called god of justice. But instead of following the neatly boxed rules of the god they thought they understood, he challenged them to absorb the violence they were ready to inflict, thereby encountering the true heart of God in revolutionary justice. Jesus bent down and drew lines in the sand. Through these actions he broke out of the box they had constructed for him, for God. Is it possible that the lines he drew confronted their arrogance in assuming they knew how God would act? Is it possible that the lines I am drawing do the same for me?

Perhaps these lines point to the heart of a god who refuses to engage according to the rules of evil any longer. A god who came in flesh to show us how to overcome evil and sin in ways that centuries of prophetic voices could not. Perhaps the heart of God is portrayed in one who has the authority to judge but chooses instead to love and forgive, saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

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Mississippi River Lines in the Sand (photo taken by me in 2012)

This is a God I can serve. This is a God I can follow. Nothing he asked me to do, he has not already done. I don’t have to spend my life waiting for the other shoe of retribution to drop, hoping it doesn’t crush me on the way down. The lines in the sand have fallen for me in pleasant places.

Melting Steel Magnolias

There’s a magnolia tree I pass on my evening walks that you can smell from half a block away. The other night I tip-toed up to the low hanging branches to savor the fragrance. The leaves were heavy from afternoon thunderstorms. I pulled my phone out to take a picture of a saturated bloom, hunting for a postcard worthy image–the mascot of southern charm, a large blossom with curled ivory petals dusted by rain drops. But the only thing I could find were completely unfurled blooms, sagging and bruised under the weight of the rain.

Magnolia from my neighbors tree

Magnolia from my neighbor’s tree

I thought about those flowers for the rest of my walk. Magnolia trees are common here and several on my route are blooming now. None of the others smell as heavenly as that first tree, even with the humid summer air. The open blossoms set it apart, filling the air with its fragrance. By fully opening its petals the tree gained in attraction what it lost in beauty. Rather than just observe it from a distance I was drawn in by the intoxicating fragrance to bury my nose in the blooms and drink deeply.

If I were that tree, I would want steel magnolias, the picture of perpetual perfection. I could see myself telling the buds to stay closed, straining to keep my petals from unfurling too far. As a woman, the threat of fading beauty scares me. In the timeless words of Ms. Truvy, “Time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”  But that tree taught me something about surrender. It’s not afraid to trade one kind of beauty for another. It’s blooms fall open without fear that they will be the last. They offer their beauty and then their fragrance, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, because it is.

The word “open” has been a theme for me this week. In poetry, long phone calls, on my evening walks and in emails. I think it’s called “synchronicity” but I call it love notes from the Lover of my Soul. One of them came in an email from a friend with a Brene’ Brown quote.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection… true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

A magnolia tree convicted me to be open, vulnerable, seen and known. I hide the imperfect parts far too often from those who would most benefit from knowing I am human. Some might smile or click the “like” button from a distance when I share the lovely parts of my life, but the magnolia challenged me to melt the steel, and dare to let my imperfections be seen. It dared me to draw people in, to connect, to drink deeply together of the incense of openness.

Dichotomy: Part II

“…And I wanna draw a map, and sing:
‘He restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in righteous paths,
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’
As if I believe it.
And I used to believe it, and someday I will again.
But right now I’m barely holding on to the love that saved me from sin
And I don’t know who I am, the whore or the virgin,
Or just a girl with a heart as dark as death itself and a whitewashed tomb for skin.

And I need a resurrection…” ~ Dichotomized, Emily Joy

…This poem became my prayer. I wasn’t sure if the “me” that “should be” was who I was , or if who I felt I was – a confused, broken, and lost girl – was actually me. I didn’t know what was happening. In a moment of clarity I said that I felt like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. I’d done everything right, followed the rules, served faithfully, put in the long hours — because if I didn’t, who would?  And how was I rewarded? My heart was torn out and trampled on. And I felt cheated. It was like bitterly watching as a prodigal came home to the loving embrace of the Father and I couldn’t be a part of it.

It wasn’t fair.

It had been a long time since I’d felt the embrace of the Father. I no longer knew what it felt like to respond to His love. I only served because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I was afraid of going to hell. I was afraid of disappointing everyone. I was afraid that without all my Christian duties, without my “title,” I would lose myself.  I knew that service motivated by fear wasn’t sustainable. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make myself love Him.

I was done.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” ~ John 8:36

I knew I was a “son.” But I’d never felt free. I had made myself into a slave, trying to pay off a debt I no longer owed. I wanted to know what it was like to be the prodigal, to run away for a while. I made up my mind that if I ever came back it would be because I wanted to, because I loved the Father, not because I was afraid.

Fearfully, I confessed this to a friend who wisely told me,

“God has given you your freedom, Bekah. If you want to get the hell outta dodge, then do it. He’s not making you stay. Really. It might take a little time ‘outta dodge’ to realize that He’s not putting dogs on you to bring you back.*” 

So before I could think too much about it, I walked away. Quietly, tentatively, not even sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.

I didn’t get very far.

Grace is an Ocean

Grace is an Ocean

Within a week of walking away I found myself swimming in the deep sea of forgetfulness, long suppressed memories floating to the surface. And suddenly, I needed Him. I didn’t have time to examine my motives or wonder if He loved me. All I could do was cling to the hem of His garment. And He picked me up. And washed me, over and over with the water of His word, His grace, His love. He held my hand and walked with me, shining His light in the darkest corners of my memories.

I’ve spent the last 5 months sinking into His oceans of grace, becoming saturated by His love. Under the reign of spiritual abuse, grace and love were meted out only in the smallest measures lest they be “abused” in excess. I never knew they were available to me in endless quantities. The law of the Spirit of Life has set me free.

I am free, indeed.

I know I’m not the only one who has ever been unable to receive the grace and love of God. As the “older son” I felt like I was spinning wheels trying to feel worthy, trying to make the Father notice me. But I was with Him all along, and everything He had was available to me.

Whether you’re the older son or the prodigal, He’s waiting.

Come home brother, sister. Lets go swimming. 

Part I..

*He knew I’d be back – he just didn’t tell me.