Tag Archives: Grace

Love, like Grace, always costs the giver [part 1]

In my former life as a teacher participating in an experiment — to see Grace-based education incarnated in a real classroom setting– at my school, we had many little sayings that tried to encapsulate the truths about Grace-in-education. One of my favorites, borrowed from the words of the ever-wise Cheryl Martin is this: Grace always costs the giver.

My life-journey these past few days has tossed several opportunities to reflect on that truth. I’ll muse for a bit….


The first was an article posted to me on FB from a friend. Daniel Starkey wrote a column called “My Mother, Commander Shepherd.” He describes his experience with the trilogy Mass Effect, one of the best video game stories I’ve ever experienced. The series also offers one of the few truly-rounded female main characters in recent video game history — maybe ever, I don’t know. (There were some awesome stories told by the early games, which don’t get any attention now because their graphics aren’t up to snuff.)

After explaining why he chose to model his main (female) Shepherd character on his mom, a woman who loomed large in his consciousness for the way she selflessly cared for many other people in their lives, Starkey found his passage through the games becoming more and more poignant as his mom began to battle arthritis and other problems.

Starkey writes about his attempt to walk in his mother’s footsteps of altruism:

I lost myself. I learned that when you spend all of your time living for others, when you dedicate everything you have to those around you, when you fill yourself with the selfless, agapic love of an altruist, some element of your being has to suffer.

My mom tried to never show weakness. She tried to suppress her own humanity so that she could be an unflinching symbol of perfection. I didn’t figure this out until I was past 20. I didn’t understand how little of herself she still had until I tried to live that life—however briefly – and burned myself out in a matter of months.

[My game character] Shepard was burning out too. She’d been resolute and she’d been unyielding, but you can only wear that mask for so long. The game was drawing to a close, and I knew how it was going to end. I knew what was going to happen.

Picking up the thread of Starkey’s column — and there are spoilers in here, so stop reading now if you plan to play the Mass Effect series —

[At the climax,] the child gives Shepard a choice; one choice and one chance to try and end the conflict.

Tired and weakened, [Shepherd] chooses to create a new kind of life. A new beginning for the people and the artificial intelligences that are left. In so doing, she had to sacrifice herself.

It was here that I think the potential implications of the manner in which I’d been playing affected me the most. In a sense, I’d just watched my mom, the most important person in the world to me, die to achieve her goal. That reality is disturbingly poignant now.

A few weeks ago, I called one of her best friends and asked if there was anything my mom had been doing that would fall within the realm of “self-destructive behavior”.

“Yeah. She has. She’s been running herself ragged.”

Somehow I thought that’d be the case. She’s been taking care of several people and helping them out when and where she can. A few members of our family have been in out of hospitals recently, and she, as she does, has taken it upon herself to make sure that everyone has the care and the support they need. She makes one hell of a mother, but she’s awful at being a person.

And THAT all got me thinking. … “Grace always costs the giver,” to quote the eminent Riven Della.

Jesus said, if we want to save our life, we must take up the Cross and follow Him. The person who tries to save (preserve) his life will lose it instead. (Matthew 9)

Is Starkey right that there must be a demarcation between life-sucking altruism and life-affirming altruism? Or is this what we are called to — “Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth any fruit.”

Sounds like his mom is a very fruitful lady.


Later, Mark Wells posted an amazing article on my FB called “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard.” Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of this whole deal …. I guess Haggard cheated on his wife or whatever, bought drugs, dinked around with homosexual sex, who knows. Whatever. Lost his pulpit, lost his ministry….

…and then repented. Asked for forgiveness. Began ministering to people around him. And the church as a whole has thrown a fit. People won’t talk to him; people won’t talk to people who talk to him. He’s not fit for ministry now or for eternity, it seems. The author Michael Cheshire starts asking questions about why Christians wanted Ted to repent when he was sinning, but now they won’t have anything to do with him. Cheshire writes,

I had a hard time understanding why we as Christians really needed Ted to crawl on the altar of church discipline and die. We needed a clean break. He needed to do the noble thing and walk away from the church. He needed to protect our image. When Ted crawled off that altar and into the arms of a forgiving God, we chose to kill him with our disdain.

I wrestled with my part in this until I got an epiphany. In a quiet time of prayer, Christ revealed to me a brutal truth: it was my fault. We are called to leave the 99 to go after the one. We are supposed to be numbered with the outcasts. After all, we are the ones that believe in resurrection. In many ways I have not been aggressive enough with the application of the gospel. My concept of grace needed to mature, to grow muscles, teeth, and bad breath. It needed to carry a shield, and most of all, it needed to find its voice.


Flannery O’Connor said somewhere, more or less, that her stories illustrate the way Grace has a backbone.

Real Grace is tough. It has teeth and claws. Sometimes Grace is a swift kick in the nuts rather than a nice pat on the head, and in Flannery’s stories, it’s always the self-righteous ones who get it in the nuts.

….more tomorrow.…. I know you internet people have short attention spans.

Schools and Rules: Wrapup

Wrapping up my series of posts on Grace-based discipline in a school setting. While most of my posts are wrapped in a lot of Bible language, I want to point out that everything I’m saying is fully applicable to any setting, public or private, religious or secular. Treating kids with respect and giving them a voice in the conversation is a matter of human respect, and that’s always applicable (regardless of one’s religious persuasion).


Returning to the case that kicked off this whole discussion, I wish the Vermont school administrators had dealt graciously with the troublesome kid who refused to stop asking questions about school rules.

I get it — I quickly tired of kids whining about the dress code.  BUT we always should be willing to engage in discussion about WHY the rules are what they are, and schools need to be willing to change outmoded rules or ones that aren’t working. Some battles aren’t worth fighting. NCS slowly tweaked its dress code over about 5 years’ time, and I’ve heard fewer and fewer complaints.

I’d like to wrap up with a shotgun list of applications and one recommended reading:

From Compliant Kids to Ethical Thinkers (John T. Spencer)

What an incredible blog. I don’t know this guy but I think we’re cut from the same cloth. Read his post — it’s short. Good fodder for today’s discussion, and a great example from a public school classroom.


And my applications for school administrators, teachers, and even parents

  • Differentiate between disobedience and rebellion. They are not the same thing, and they should not be handled the same way when disciplining.
  • Most disobedience is unintentional and needs to be corrected, not punished. Punishment is punitive; it’s damage in return for damage. Correction is helpful and empowers a student to make better choices next time.
  • Rebellion is actually pretty rare in a functional community. It’s probably a red flag too — there’s more going on in that student than a sudden desire to impale the rulebook. Dig deeper and you’ll start finding upheaval, brokenness, abuse, fear, or anger which you must then handle or report.
  • Don’t confuse human authority with God’s Law. Don’t punish infractions of human rules as if they were breaking God’s laws. That is a dangerous conflation and you will pay for it dearly as soon as a kid learns to think for herself.
  • Natural consequencesof one’s actions will always teach more powerful lessons than anything we can construct as a “punishment.”  Stop sheltering kids from the natural consequences of their actions. It’s God’s built-in correctional facility for this planet and it works pretty darn well when we let it. That doesn’t mean you throw a kid to the wolves or let him hurt himself, but it does mean that we all need to experience the reality that we create because of our choices. And that’s a far more powerful tool for sanctification than demerit slips, long lectures, or detention.


It’s a lot easier to slap rules and punishments on a situation, but Grace-based discipline (like I’ve been describing) actually pays off with far better relationships among teachers and students in the end.

Fuzzy stories do not good theology make

someone just sent me this email:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people.

He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?

The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’

common story. 
terrible theology!

the “two-natures” explanation of sanctification sucks, because it makes the Christian life a war that YOU can win on your own simply by putting enough energy into it.

so SO common….

If I believe that it’s up to me to rescue myself from sin, then I am locked in a performance Christianity … one where I am responsible to force myself into ‘right decisions’ by my own willpower. 

it’s not enough to just say, “hey. God has rescued my will … so now I can do it!! I can do it!! I can DO it!!!”

the point of the Gospel is we CAN’T do it.  
I can’t make myself holy — no more now than I could when I was “dead in my trespasses and sins.”  Galatians is all about this…. so is Romans 7.  If I was saved entirely by Grace, how can I expect to work myself into holiness?

I remember that one of the earliest knock-down, drag-out theological fights that happened between Coart & me was a two or three day discussion (in the dating parlor, around campus, everywhere! haha) over this very point.

That discussion wrestled me out of my allegiance to that “two natures” theology.  We hadn’t been dating really long — we were still undergrads.  And that’s when I first realized that Coart’s allegiance to truth was grounded in a tenacious hold to biblical data, not to theological systems or pat answers.

Let’s stop passing this story around, OK?


into_the_wildInto the Wild (recent film, now on DVD) recounts the true story of a young man –Christopher– who headed by himself into the Alaskan wilderness to explore his philosophy that man needs only nature’s honesty to live a fulfilled, enlightened life.

To him, truth is more important than love, than society, than anything (parroting Thoreau).
Many experiences swirled together in his life to strip from him any faith in society:  his parents’ constant fighting, their materialism, their hypocrisy.  He took his copies of Thoreau and Emerson and London and sold everything else in a search for wisdom. I’ll not say anything else lest I spoil the plot.

I recommend the film for several reasons, including its artistry and theme.

Early in the film, Jack asked us all whether the hippie lifestyle appealed to any of us — carefree abandonment to nature and a life unencumbered by responsibility.

You’d think, coming off a hectic and exhausting school year, my answer would be “heck yes.”
But it’s not. 

The more I think about it, the more I find Into the Wild an excellent incarnation of the selfishness that drives us to shirk the incredible effort it takes to overcome the Fall.

Think about it:  Why is the hippie lifestyle such a draw?

Because at its core, it’s always easier to walk away from humanity than work to overcome the effects of sin in this world.  

Christopher saw the hypocrisy and sin of his parents, but not his own.

He absorbed Thoreau’s Transcendental ideas without heeding the corrective warnings of Jack London. [By the way, his story doesn’t end there … so watch the movie or read the book.]

The transient lifestyle appeals because living in a commune “off the land” means you escape being encumbered.  No one can claim your affections or demand your loyalty. This kind of freedom brings no responsibility.  But you utterly lose the power to (by God’s hand) bring beauty from ashes.

You forsake the burden of redemption — the messy, painful truth that Grace always costs the giver.

At one point in the movie, I said, “This is sad.  If this kid were to die, no one would really care.  He’s done nothing that actually lasts.”

Coart replied wisely, “More importantly, if this kid lives, no one will really care because his life won’t matter.”

Our very burdens which weigh down our hearts and make us groan at times under the load (especially those rare moments of clear sight, when we see our sin for what it is or encounter brokenness in its harsh ugliness)– those very burdensome tasks are what make our lives count for something beyond ourselves.

Do you want this world to be different than how you found it?

It will cost you something.

The Curse as Grace

I’ve always thought of the Curse as … a curse. (duh)

Nothing is easy … everything worth doing takes so much agonizing work.

We were driving into Greenville the other night discussing life and its difficulties, and Coart commented that the Curse is actually Grace.  It holds us accountable for our sinfulness. It limits the amount of damage humans can do (even sinning takes work).  We are sanctified by this struggle against the groanings of creation.  Little else really is effective against our nature.

Apart from the violent Grace that is the Curse, we would not understand the depths of our ingrained sin.

Everything is hard because everything about me is screwed up.
Sin is a perversity — a twistedness that only God can un-twist.

Flannery O’Connor’s shocking moments of self-revelation for her characters are an artistic picture of the slaps-in-the-face we receive from Life in this broken world.  I often say with a bitter laugh that irony, not love, “makes the world go ’round.”  Flannery’s stories write that theme large. Apart from painful (and Gracious) self-revelation, I would never see myself for what I am — a sinner in great need of rescue.

“Hosanna!” = “Save now!”

let’s poke it again (Problem of Evil)

To continue a point I was working on a few days ago:

1. God is good.
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil exists.

Every religion must wrestle with “the problem of evil.:” Trying to affirm more than two of these truths at any one time shoves a person into logical impossibility. For Christians, knowing the promises of God doesn’t make the Problem of Evil any less knotty.

Many folks, unwilling to live on the precarious fault between faith and oblivion, solve the dilemma by weakening (or denying) one of the three core truths that cause the problem. Rabbi Neusner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People claims that God means well but doesn’t really have the power to do anything about the evil in this world.  Open theists suggest that God doesn’t have full knowledge of the future (again, diminishing His omnipotence) — a handy way to allow evil to exist without blaming God for it (as well as a neat way to explain the paradox between free will and sovereignty). Atheists and agnostics just deny both of the first two propositions, and there you go.

Conservative Christians are too well-versed in Scripture to let go of either the idea that God is good or that He is in control (though most of us will admit to doubting one or both when the going gets hard). Instead, I have noticed that “we” are tempted to diminish the full reality and horribleness of tragedy and evil which touch our lives from time to time.

Romans 8:28 has become a BandAid which Christians try to slap onto the gaping wounds caused by real pain or tragedy. I hear people glibly quote promises, Bible verses, or sermon snippets as if simple answers will take care of everything.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not taking aim at people who have hacked their way through the deep undergrowth of life’s trials and come out with a much deeper and stronger faith, one that allows them to minister comfort and assurance to their fellow, struggling siblings in the household of Faith. (See 1 Cor. 1)

But I think that Reformed theology (especially) with its emphasis on logical doctrine and precise systematization of theology pushes folks toward that which is glib. Evil is no longer evil … not really.  Because God *does* work much good out of (or in spite of) the tragedy of life, some people assume therefore that the evil itself is not really all that bad. “It’s just a flesh wound!” they cry to the person whose heart has been ripped to pieces by sorrow and loss.  “Cheer up! Be thankful! Your life could be much worse!” echoes at the miserable soul who finds itself trapped in the dark corridors of the mind and emotions.   We rush so fast to defend God’s honor that we try to soften the blow of reality.

I love the Psalms for many reasons. A few years ago I stumbled across this truth:  The Psalmist almost always ends up at the place of faith and soul-healing, but often after passing through dark and troubled waters. He doesn’t mince words, reduce true evil to an illusion of evil which the knowledge of sovereignty magically wipes away. Many of the Psalms are gritty and honest as the writer lays out his grief before the Lord.

My point?

Simply this:  Think before you speak.  Romans 12 says we should “weep with those who weep” in addition to rejoicing with the joyful.

When you find yourself in a position to minister to someone in trouble, first listen and mourn.

Don’t rush to admonish — the time for your exhortation will eventually come. [I’ve rarely met a conservative evangelical who needed help on that score. *grins*]

Real Grace floods into situations that are full of real Evil. 

We don’t have to play the game on “easy” because we’re afraid Grace will lose.