How many of us suffer from being a perfectionist? I tried being a perfectionist for years. I wasn’t totally aware of my focus on trying to be perfect. It was almost a family trait. Smart Dad, smart Mom, smart brother and sister. My Dad was an engineer and a very good one at that. Calculations and answers. Looking for ways to do the next thing even better than the last. Encouraged to achieve, I wanted to know. I wanted to be sure. I never gave myself a break.
It caused me nothing but trouble. My excuse for judging something in someone else was this: I was not asking of them any more than I expected of myself. I am sure I was insufferable and I am never completely sure that I am not being just as insufferable in any given moment.
At times, I have thought of the Apostle Paul as insufferable. Perhaps that is why I find reading his letters so challenging. I often hear them as nothing but lectures to churches he had founded. Take this letter to the church at Corinth. Especially irritating has always been Paul’s reference to the thorn he has received to keep him “from being too elated.” My guess is that the thorn could be anything - anything that one might not want to be or to be suffering from. But aside from the fact that he prayed to God three times for its removal, Paul writes about celebrating his weakness because (as he wrote in verse 9) God’s “grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Grace. How does one talk about Grace? We know it when we see it, or hear it, or sing about it. As far as I am concerned, Grace cannot be explained or analyzed. Trust me - thousands - no, probably more like hundreds of thousands - of humans have made the attempt to define grace and understand its true meaning. You can find a slew of these attempts on the internet. (I personally poured through only around 150 explanations.) It is like that other “G” word - God. How does one explain God? In my vocabulary I have no adequate adjectives for God. I like the name the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. The name which indicates that which is God is Ein Sof. It may be translated as “Infinity” and suggesting everything that is and also translated as “Nothingness.” Together the translations imply that God is beyond definition.
Such is Grace. Grace is automatic, ceaseless, without beginning and without end good juju. It’s been described as meritless favor. We don’t earn it. It is an unseen gift from God. It was God’s unmerited Grace is that enabled the survivors and friends of Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston to offer forgiveness to the shooter instead of retribution.
I liked this quote about Grace that I found in a blog I read. “You never really experience Grace unless you see the need for it - and even that realization comes by Grace ... The moment you are overwhelmed with your absolute helplessness” (James MacDonald) is the moment when you are emptied of pride or vanity or false belief in your ability to fix everything, to live that perfect life. When whatever weakness you have is fully acknowledged. Then - and only then - is there space for God’s Grace. It feels like a paradox to me. My strength is in my weakness. How do I live this out in my life? So - I’m working on a new daily prayer:
Merciful God, Thank you for my insufficiency. Forgive me for my self indictment.
I’m still working on it. A paradox is hard to pray about. Paradox number 1: The more insufficient I am the better, but only when I don’t judge it. Some writers have called it “strengthlessness.” I really like this word. Strengthlessness - a time when we have no inherent strength on our own and it comes exclusively and totally from God. When have you experienced your own strengthlessness? After my brain injury and my inability to return to nursing, feeling helpless and without job skills and an insufficient income - that was a whole lot of strengthlessness. How about when your marriage failed? Or when your retirement disappeared? Or we find ourselves grieving someone who we are sure “should not” have died?
Paradox number 2: No one is too weak to be powerful, but many are too strong to be powerful. In other words, it’s not until I’m broke, when I have come to the end of my own resources. It’s when I am physically or mentally broken and have come to the end of myself. As long as I keep trusting in my own money and my own ideas and my own strategies and I keep trusting first in my own ability to solve all the problems, then there is no room for the in-breaking of God’s Grace. It is only when we have come to the end of ourselves, then and only "then does one begin to see the power of God released through that emptiness." (Grace To You - website) Unseen. Unbidden.
Paradox number 3: How do we see something that is unseen and impossible to describe. How do we know something that can’t be known by any human means of measurement? I started to think about breathing. Inhalation. Oxygenation. We don’t merit it or earn it any more than we can merit or earn Grace. We receive it. We may choose to inhale, to contract the muscles attached to our ribcage to begin an inhalation thereby expanding our chest cavity, expanding the space in which our lungs are located. But that is the extent of our involvement. The space in our lungs creates the negative pressure which generates the airflow into our lungs. We exert some control when we are paying attention, but when we are not or when we are asleep our lungs continue to fill. I believe I will keep breathing even as I relinquish the control of it. I don’t fill my lungs, and yet my lungs are filled. Just as the air continues to fill the empty space which has grown larger and more empty, so too the Grace of God fills us in our emptiness.
So too, the people of Emmanuel AME church chose to empty themselves and allow Grace to be the essense of their response to the shooter. What is up with the reading from Mark? What does this mean? Jesus is experiencing weakness when he returns to his own hometown. What’s up with that? What happened between chapter 5 and chapter 6?
Jesus has been preaching and praying and performing miracles all over the region. He is followed by crowds of people - seekers and believers, scoffers and doubters. His is a ministry of healing and wholeness. People were amazed. He had just raised a child from death and back to the living at the end of Chapter 5.
So now, Jesus has moved on to his own hometown. On the sabbath, he begins to teach the people who knew him way back when. We are told that many who heard him were astounded. The Greek word used here by the author of Mark is not of an awe-inspired amazement. The word used here is Ekplesso. It is a word that contains more than a hint of the not credible.
Things don’t add up. The locals are not impressed by his preaching or the myriad of miraculous things he had done. They are incredulous that someone of his origins, from a simple family, from this community is the one who has spoken so eloquently and wisely, and is the one performing all the miracles. His own people are implying that the idea that Jesus’ power comes from God, is hogwash. It cannot possibly the right conclusion.
We are not told what caused Jesus’ weakness. But Jesus finds himself emptied and unable to do miracles. Weakened. Strengthless. But I think that Jesus already knew what God later taught Paul. God’s never ending perpetual Grace is always sufficient and it is weakness that provides the fertile environment through which God’s power is made perfect. Did Jesus choose to reveal no more to the unbelievers surrounding him? Why was Jesus disabled? We are not told.
It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Grace is a constant unrelenting gift from The Source. All of this Grace in its enormity and its perpetual motion is ours even though there is not a darn thing we can do to deserve that Grace which is unceasingly poured out for us.
I have come to realize that all the condemnation I have felt in my lifetime came from me and people like me who believe that we must be perfect to be good enough for God. Such a human construct. That condemnation never came from God. We condemn ourselves. The reality is that God wants us to be filled up with God’s Grace.
Grace is as big as God - infinitely indefinable and perpetually in motion in order to fill us up. Hear now these words from Psalm 124:
If it were not for you, O Beloved, You who make all things new, Fear and Chaos would reign in every heart; in You will I trust forever. When doubt threatens to overwhelm and separate me, ... Then do your Living Streams of Grace enfold me.
Thanks be to God.