Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. ~ Walter Anderson
It’s a common question: Why do bad things happen to good people? I watch the news with a broken heart as one gut wrenching trauma replaces another like a slideshow, clicking from disaster to disaster.
I watch and pray and, if I’m honest, there’s a small part of me that’s relieved that this time it didn’t happen to my family or my friends, or to me. Not this time. But something will, sometime, because bad things happen to good people.
There’s a second question: Why do good things happen to bad people? Where the first question saddens, the second challenges. It’s easier for me to grieve for the sorrows of the good than to be glad for the blessings of the bad.
When I focus on experience and expectations, rather than the exegesis, both questions have the same answer. Life here, on this side of heaven, isn’t fair. Thank God it isn’t!
An eye for an eye, that’s fair, but there’s nothing fair about turning the other cheek. There’s nothing fair about forgiving 70 x 7. Maybe the injustice of it is why it’s so hard?
The fact that good and virtuous traits like turning the other cheek don’t come naturally to me, leads me to ask a third question. Am I really a very good person who occasionally experiences bad things or am I a very flawed person who often experiences undeserved blessings? The sick don’t need a doctor. The good don’t need grace because grace, by its nature and definition, is entirely unfair and unmerited. I need grace, daily grace, so there’s the answer.
Jesus was direct: … love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who insult you and persecute you.
Bad things happen. Love, bless, do good and pray (for the good people and for the bad people). Those are the responses that will define my character and my quality of life.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is a gift. All that is good is ours not by right but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.” My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”~ Brennan Manning (Th Ragamuffin Gospel)
Brennan Manning died yesterday, Friday, April 12, 2013. Brennan Manning once helped save my life.
I first read The Ragamuffin Gospel several years after it was published in 1990. Before Brennan, I thought grace was a nice word used in a benediction. I also thought that I was less raggedy than the average muffin.
As the years passed and the cracks in my veneer began to spiderweb, I no longer thought I was a such a fine person. I didn’t see grace as a priceless gift from a loving Father. Grace had become something you fall from and I’d fallen far. And I remembered Brennan.
Re-reading The Ragamuffin Gospel as a broken person was like reading an entirely different book. It became my Life 101 book: God loves you as you are and not as you should be… Abba loves you very much…
My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!”…This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough… ~ Brennan Manning (All is Grace)
I would say Rest in Peace, Brennan, but I don’t think he resting. I think the Father has wrapped His arms around him and is throwing him a party!
There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing. ~ G.K. Chesterton
Listening is hard. Hearing is even harder.
Years ago, I was the Counseling Supervisor at very busy Crisis Intervention Center in a mid-sized city. We had a 24 hour crisis line along with a steady stream of walk-in clients.
I was the only one in the center late one Saturday afternoon when a 36-year-old client I’d met with often, walked in, clearly agitated. He picked up a bottle of glue off a desk, squirted it in his Coke, shook it and sprayed it all over the walls.
As I began to try to gently talk to him, he grabbed me and held a knife to my throat for the next 45 minutes. He was strong and I was at a loss. Regardless of what I said, he heard something entirely different. Stan was a paranoid schizophrenic who rarely took his meds and often heard voices. On this particular Saturday he thought he’d heard my voice making fun of him.
Stan couldn’t hear what I was really saying. He only heard what he was afraid people said about him. His deteriorating mental health made hearing impossible.
Stan’s focus was entirely on himself. And in that way, he and I aren’t so different. A memory or my opinion or reaction to a remark can shift my focus in a conversation off of the person I’m with and back onto me. When I’m listening to you but thinking about me, I don’t hear what you’re saying.
We all have mental chatter to tune out. We may listen to voices from our childhood or school or church. They may even be tapes we’ve made ourselves – voices that distort the sound-waves so that we add our own spin to another’s words. There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.
It’s the same with God. Sometimes I talk and talk and then I’m done..
I skip over the listening all together. When I’m praying and I do all the talking, I become hard of hearing.
With God, and with others, playing my own tapes too loudly can lead to hearing loss.
Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real. ~ Thomas Merton
I visited Alcatraz a few years ago. It’s a sad and haunted place. Alcatraz was designed to break people. The weight of it all still hangs in the air there.
My first job after college was as a Correctional Worker. It was a job for which I was exceptionally ill-suited. I was 21 and while my Psychology degree qualified me, my personality didn’t. I was inexperienced, naive, easily intimidated and phobicly adverse to confrontation.
Unfortunately, I’ve always interviewed well.
I worked in a residential facility for women that was a stop over between jail and integration into the community. Most residents came to us after serving prison time. The offenses ranged from multiple DUI’s to the killing of a Federal Marshall.
As the newest staff member, I was assigned most of the pat and strip searches. When it was time to do random drug testing, I was the one who watched while the residents used the restroom to make sure they didn’t dilute their UA’s.
Although Corrections was miles outside of my comfort zone, I wanted to make a difference. I know the women I worked with could sense my hesitancy and tentativeness. I was always polite but so uncomfortable. Years away from being broken, I didn’t know anything about humility.
I thought understanding the socioeconomic/environmental/cultural reasons for behavior would enable me to help/fix/cure. More than anything, I was intimidated and embarrassed – reactions which shifted the focus back onto me. Because I was embarrassed, I robbed the residents of yet another portion of their own dignity and worth. I looked at people without seeing them and missed the opportunity to look into their eyes and pray that they might see some glimmer of God’s grace.
While standing in line at the checkout counter, the lady in front of me pulled out food stamps to pay for her groceries. It was obvious as she unfold the currency that she, I, and the checkout girl were quite uncomfortable with the interaction. The woman never lifted her head as she organized her bags of groceries and set them into her cart. She walked away from the checkout stand in the sort of still movements a person uses when they know they are being watched.
On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away. ~ Donald Miller
While reading Miller’s story, I thought of the times I’ve looked at someone’s life and felt sorry for them. I’m certain I’ve done this with people who are perfectly happy and content. My reaction isn’t based on their lack, it’s based on mine.
When I compare my circumstances to another’s and feel pity, I’m assuming they want the same things I want – that they feel how I’m guessing I would feel in their place. It’s so easy to rob someone of their dignity by making assumptions and by practicing pity instead of compassion.
While there may be an element of good-will in pity, there is almost always an underlying strain of pride. Pity is a place, just far enough removed, where we can look down while keeping clean and safe. Pity urges a turning away, or at its best, a temporary cure which mostly serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Pity is presumptive and demeaning.
The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning to suffer together with. Compassion not only calls us to care rather than judge, it also calls us to comfort instead of always trying to cure. Compassion moves in and takes the time to learn the heart of another.
Pity says: There but for the grace of God go I.
Compassion says: There, by God’s grace, I’ll go with you.
There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are. ~Brennan Manning~
When I was in first grade, I was playing at my friend Tara’s house. Her big sister, Patti, came downstairs carrying her yearbook. Patti was a sophomore. She was very smart and very popular.
Patti called us over to the sofa and opened the yearbook to the Senior Class pictures. She said: Who do you think is the prettiest girl in the class, Tara? It took Tara only a moment to point to the soon to be prom queen. Patti nodded and smiled and then passed the book to me. Debbie, who do you think is the prettiest girl in the class?
I liked Patti and I wanted her approval so I took the assignment very seriously. It was a small school. I don’t know exactly how many were in the senior class but I considered each picture carefully until I was confident that I’d chosen well.
Even though this was decades ago and I couldn’t tell you the name of another person in the entire high school, I remember my answer that day: Dorcas Miller. I can still picture Patti folding in with laughter. Dorcas Miller! Why in the world would you pick Dorcas Miller? She’s fat and her hair looks like her Dad cuts it. I asked you to pick out the prettiest girl in the class, not the ugliest one, Debbie!
I’m sure I remember this because it was the first and only time Patti ever talked to me and I was embarrassed. But I defended my choice: I like her face. She looks like the nicest girl in the class and that makes her the prettiest.
When I was 7, beauty was a simple concept. Nice people (or in the case of Dorcas Miller, people I thought looked like they were nice) were beautiful. Not nice people weren’t. There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.
My thinking about most of life has changed over the years but my definition of beauty is pretty much the same. Beauty is as beauty does.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. ~ Thomas Merton
I took a class once on how to know God’s will. It was a large group and, as you might expect, there were a wide variety of views, varying from: You can’t – to God will tell you where to park your car if you’re listening. Scripture was cited supporting every possible position and the debate was lively and endless.
I’m not much of a debater. I won’t presume to tell you how you can know God’s will. I can only tell you what I know about myself which is not all that much, as it turns out.
I was a Psych major. You know the type. I was one of those people who was always drawing out other people’s feelings while tabling my own. I would have described myself as hugely introspective. I thought that I thought very deep thoughts.
Merton was right. I don’t really know myself and the fact that I think I’m following God’s will doesn’t necessarily mean that I am.
But, along with Merton, I do want to follow Him and I believe that the desire to please God, pleases God. And that’s grace, isn’t it?
And so is this: I also believe that He will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust Him always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for He is ever with me, and He will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things he will certainly do nothing effective. ~ G.K. Chesterton
Today we begin another new year.
I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t not make them because I don’t have areas of my life I need to change. I don’t make them but because I can’t afford to.
I’m pulled toward procrastination. I don’t think I procrastinate because I’m lazy. Usually, when I procrastinate, it’s because I don’t want to make a mistake.
If I’m not certain how to approach something, how to do or undo something, I can easily fall into doing nothing. I admire those bold people who don’t mind stepping right in it, knowing they can clean up afterwards. But I’m not one of them. I want to wait until the right moment, when I have just the right words or know the right way to go about something.
That’s why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I know myself well enough to know that I have to take care of things as soon as I’m aware of them, before I have time to work out just the right approach. It doesn’t matter if I want to be a kinder person or become healthier or just coral my thoughts – there’s no magic on January 1st for me.
I have to begin each day before I start each day with a prayer to learn the lessons of grace: to give without expectation, to love without condition, to be gentle when harmed and hopeful when hurt.
In this new year, I’m not making resolutions, I’m praying for a make-over: a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes – a new heart, today and every day.
He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
~ John Coots/Haven Gillespie