When I labeled my last post as "Part 1" I almost instantly regretted it because, well Part 1 kinda sorta insinuates that there is a Part 2 coming. I knew I had more thoughts about the idea of something dying being a beautiful act of worship, just as dead leaves offer up a fragrant offering this time of year. But, truthfully this Part 2 is harder for me to write.
I have gotten pretty okay at writing about grief and suffering. God has heaped grace upon grace on me since my dad's diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer's nearly 2 years ago. I have actually come to understand new shades of grace ("grace", not gray people!) as I face into suffering and grief in ways I never had to before now. He has taught me that grace isn't always glamorous, or easy. It doesn't always smell of lilacs and unicorn farts or feel like falling into a pile of soft pillows. Sometimes grace is messy and ugly (hideous even) and hard. Sometimes it smells like a bunch of crap instead of the sweet rainbow aroma that I am sure a unicorn fart smells like (disclaimer: I have never actually smelled a unicorn fart.) And sometimes those pillows are soaked in tears, because grace doesn't always feel like a soft landing. Sometimes it feels like you just crashed face first into a brick wall. And sometimes, grace doesn't feel like you are crashing, but instead it feels like you are hovering, exhausted, and will never find a safe, soft place to land.
It might seem backwards since grace is defined as "God's unmerited favor"-God giving us what we don't deserve and could never earn. Yet, I have learned through suffering that anything that draws me closer to God-and hardship, any pain, any confusion or heartache that cause me to turn to God or grow deeper in my understanding of God-is grace. Because if there is one thing in this life that I certainly do NOT deserve, it is to be in a relationship with God. And that is exactly where I find myself. It is pretty amazing, in the most humbling and simultaneously exalting way.
I have spent the last two years embracing and learning from God's grace in suffering. There are few things that make me bubble up with excitement inside more than talking about how Romans 8:28 really IS true; that God really DOES stay true to His word to "bring about all things for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose". Often the "good" is not a resolution to the problem or the end of suffering, but grace in it. While I would never wish for my dad to have Alzheimer's, or I would never wish for the slew of trials Peter and I have faced in the past few years, one right after another, I can truly say that I am thankful for them in a way, because I get to know my Jesus in a way I never would have otherwise. Grace has brought me through to this point, and grace allows me to say that.
So yeah, talking about that side of grace the way I did in "Part 1" has become easy for me. What I had in my head to talk about here in Part 2 is harder. And while it would be easy to keep talking about suffering and grief with the occasional reference to mythical flatulence, that's not what Part 2 is about. Part 2 is about how God has been showing me that the same lessons I have learned about grace as they relate to suffering, also ring true when they come to my sin. And for some reason sin isn't as easy to talk about as suffering, well at least not my sin. I could probably talk about yours' or my kids' or a complete strangers'.
This past June Peter and I and our band of at the time 3 and 3/4 kids moved into Peter's parents' house while we waited for the go-ahead to move into our new home. It all happened very quickly (as in we packed up our whole lives and moved out in 12 days). The whole time we had a house we knew we were going to move into, with pretty awesome landlords to boot. God had orchestrated it so obviously and perfectly that there was no doubting that this was where His next step for us was. We just didn't know exactly when that step was. So my in-laws graciously turned their lives and house upside down and took us in. Thus began what I dubbed our "slightly homeless summer". I was eager to see what God was going to teach me during that time. As I hurriedly and tearfully packed I could almost see inspiring matte instagram pictures with eloquent and thought-provoking captions about finding our true home in Christ. It was almost romantic really. God was going to teach me how to find my home in Him. If I could go back and talk to myself then I might say something like this, "Oh honey. That's cute. You think you know what God is going to teach you. Aww. *pats head*. And you would like that wouldn't you? You would like Him to "teach" you something that you have already been wrestling with for 6 years. You are just so stinkin' adorable, and also a teensy bit repulsive". Yeah, looking back those ideas of what God was going to teach me were about as imaginary as unicorns... and their farts.
Turns out God didn't want to teach me anything that could be summed up prettily in an instagram post. He didn't want to teach me a whole lot about suffering or martyrdom at all. Nah, God thought while I was slightly homeless and about to pop out my forth baby it would be the perfect time to send me a proverbial punch to the ever-growing gut and show me my sin. God decided to have the nerve to believe me when I prayed and said I wanted to be more like Jesus. He took me at my word when I told Him that I wanted to grow closer to Him, so bring it on. Bring on the suffering God. Again, I can imagine God patting me on the head like I would if I could go back 6 months.
So, because God loves me, He started the excruciating work of revealing to me just how sinful and ugly and selfish I am. It took all summer and into the Fall and (what is it now? End of November?) apparently it is going to take at least part of the winter too. I mean I knew I was selfish, but just like "normal selfish", "no big deal selfish", "I've got bigger issues selfish". God showed me (and still is showing me because I am a super-fast learner apparently) that I am selfish, just plain selfish and it is just plain gross. You guys. Seeing your sin hurts. It almost feels like having your skin ripped right off. And then someone taking a jackhammer to the raw spots. Ain't nobody instragramming that.
And because it is selfishness we were/are working on here, there wasn't much time to sit and nurse my wounds. No, God kept picking up what felt like a jackhammer and kept on chiseling. I know basically nothing about construction but I do know you've got to do the demolition work before you can rebuild. Sometimes you take off one layer of the facade and see that what's underneath is rotten, and before you can build something that will stand up against the weather and time you need to get rid of what's rotten. So, while I was slightly homeless and much more than slightly pregnant God decided it was time to do the demolition work in my heart where He has made His home.
Thankfully, most of the demolition work is done now. There are some walls being built back up, but every now and then we, God and I (because I like to think I have any say in this at all), find a whole mess of rotten selfishness hiding somewhere and we begin the work of digging it out. I think it is more like God knew the sin was hidden there all along and decided to pull back the curtain to show me at the providential time He knew I needed to see it. So, because I know this is what this work really is, and because it is better than calling it what it really feels like, I call it "Grace".
It is grace because I certainly don't deserve this redemptive work. I deserve to be left the way He found me, decaying from the inside, to eventually crumble and collapse. Thankfully God didn't, and doesn't, see me as being beyond repair. He sees past what needs to be dug away. And even more amazingly, He doesn't just show me the yuck, He picks up the chisel with me (because He knows I could never do it alone) and He actually does the demolition work with me. Oh it hurts. It is embarrassing and humbling because there is pride in there too that we are chiseling away at. And I want to cry and give up, or lash out, or run away, or pretend it's not there, or say "enough, this is good enough".
But He loves me still.
So we chisel together.
And we rebuild together.
And I cry out from the deepest parts of me in a wailing voice that I barely recognize as my own, full of resolve- the strongest weakness I have ever heard: "I must decrease but He must increase!". (John 3:30).
And slowly, painstakingly, the pieces of the old me are dead and gone.
And new walls are built, altars really.
And on them is a burnt sacrifice of the old junk we cleared away.
And just like the leaves from Part 1, the bittersweet scent of the old pieces of me burning away on those new altars is my deepest, trust act of worship. It wafts up, up and out, this sacrifice of praise, this sacrifice of the very pieces of me, flesh and bone.
And I know in a way it is beautiful. Once again, beauty from ashes.