We had been studying Margery Garbar's essays on Shakespeare's comedies, and one phrase in particular struck me from her analysis of Portia and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice. (Some background, for anyone who's not familiar--Portia is a witty, intelligent, beautiful and fabulously wealthy heiress beset by suitors; Antonio is a respected merchant prone to depression with few friends he really cares for--like basically, one. Who happens to be the lucky guy that wins Portia, by the way. There is also a gorgeous adaptation of the play starring Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino, but here I'm clearly getting sidetracked.) Garbar analyzed both characters as 'trapped in a death-like ennui of self-sufficient self', needing to commit to the risks of relationships.
I memorized this quote for writing essays, and thought it was interesting. I didn't expect it would resurface in my mind months after finals (and happily forgetting most of what I'd so painfully memorized) when I looked at my own life. Certainly not expecting it would come together, for me, with that quote of Elisabeth Eliot's about 'a life of unmitigated selfishness' (from Shadow of the Almighty) a quote which once meant so much to me; and even C.S Lewis in The Four Loves.
Now, I understand the cynical--I used to think, overly cynical--view of relationships as potential hurt. Caring for someone essentially means making yourself vulnerable. As C.S Lewis so poignantly and beautifully said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And that is what I am currently learning to accept, not to become embittered, not to withdraw. Like everyone, I am afraid of heartbreak, of loss, of suffering. I am afraid of getting hurt. Of people I love getting hurt. At the first breath of conflict my instinctive response is to retreat, to withdraw into myself, to pull my circle of relationships closer and tighter once more around myself. The bubble of self-sufficient self is attractive; it seems to promise us escape from the pain and conflict that come with human relationships. Something whispers to me that I cannot afford to love people--so much, or so many--because it will end up hurting me.
Yet something also whispers that Another loved, at the cost of ultimate hurt. Knowingly.
He embraced, not a few, but so many; embraced vulnerability in the giving of so much love, love which was still unrequited as yet.
"...and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me..."
As the familiar words hang in the air, I close my eyes, the better to concentrate in the stillness.
Stop. Put it all from your mind--the Sunday School lesson you have to teach later; the dreaded week lying beyond today; the air conditioning which doesn't seem to be working; the annoying tag scratching the back of your neck.
1 Corinthians 11:27 echoes in my mind as it wanders and I hastily, guiltily pull my thoughts together, scandalized to find myself worrying about something left undone even as I try to focus.
This is the Lord's Supper. A time to be still. A time to reflect. A time to repent, to receive, to renew.
I remember my failures, and am sobered.
How badly I have shown my love for You. How little I have thought of Yours.
I feel humbled for the grace shown to me, and grateful.
I resolve to try.
I've failed, and I know I will still fail, but I never want to stop trying; I never want to give up on myself, to give up Your love for me, to keep trying to be worthy of it.
As I do this--as I take that small white square of chewy tasteless bread, swallow the red liquid, actions which happen and are over in a moment, which are effortless, yet mean so much more--I promise to try. I promise You, Whom I love. I promise myself. I reaffirm my desire--to love You--to be worthy of Your love for me--to please You--to know You, in my life.
I want this.
No matter how many times I fall short.
Or how far I fall short.
This little ritual reminds me that to You, it doesn't matter. That I can try, I can keep trying, reassured by hope.
I want You and I want to live worthy of You.
Opening my eyes, I look up, and the last taste of sweetness fades away in my mouth.
When I ask God for something, I ask much the way the stereotypical teenager asks the stereotypical parent in Hollywood movies for a favour--tentatively, warily. Oh please, I want this so much! I gasp helplessly, while acknowledging mentally, But I know you don't want to give it to me, or you don't think you should give it to me!
My attitude towards God's answering prayer tends to be dubious and almost apologetic. I'm not sure that He will actually give it to me, or I'm very conscious that maybe He disapproves of what I'm asking for.
Hands behind my back, eyes fixed on my feet. Tentatively. "...please?"
As if God is embarrassed to have to listen to and answer my requests, since I know how small and possibly foolish they are to Him. With this attitude, naturally it tends to feel like a very private affair. I feel as if His answer--whether yes or no--was something strictly between the two of us.
Examining David's prayer in Psalm 40:11-17 and the motivations behind it made me see that I needed to change my attitude towards asking, and my motivations for asking. David's request was motivated by his trust in the person of God. This, by the way, is becoming a recurrent theme recently in my thoughts, writing, and reading. I apologize if it seems repetitive-I probably ought to write it out nicely in one cohesive post instead of letting it seep through messily in different ones; but truth can't be compartmentalized. More on that later (ironical as that sounds!)
Also, by his own humility and his blamelessness, two qualities which so easily become either-or. Humility, at least for me in my own experience, often only comes when I've messed up, when I'm not blameless. Likewise, with the same irony, blamelessness is rare but also always threatened by pride. You can't know you're blameless without feeling good about it, can you? Just as it's hard to be truly humble without the help of guilt and repentance. How to reconcile both of these seemingly oppositional virtues?
It is always meaningful to see how the truth of the Old Testament constantly ties in with the New Testament, and this was one of those instances, when I frowned over this paradox and suddenly realized that the only answer to this was the unique status we receive through Christ. The unique status of being simultaneously forgiven and perfect, simultaneously sinner and saint.
This was another reminder to me just how significant a role Christ has in our prayers. Just this morning I said grace in my halting Chinese with my grandma, congratulating myself when I made it through to the Amen. For those who struggle with praying publicly, it is nothing compared to praying in a language you're not competent with! If that gives you any comfort. I opened my eyes only to see her bright round eyes fixed reproachfully on me. I'd neglected to close with the Chinese equivalent of 'In Jesus' name,' for the simple reason that I forgot how to say it, and she reminded me sternly that without Christ we 'couldn't pray properly.' She is absolutely right, and I am glad my Chinese failed me then, for that reminder.
Prayer should remind us of Christ and His importance to us, whether in our requests to God, or simply in enabling us to pray at all.
But perhaps most strikingly, David's request was fueled by his confidence in how God saw his request--in his knowledge that answering his prayer was not a personal favour from God to him, but something which actually glorified God, something which made not only him, but the rest of God's people rejoice, and be encouraged by.
Think of it. God's answering your prayer actually glorifies Him. It blesses not just you alone, but others.
How's that for courage to ask?
And courage to talk more about your prayer life?
(which is what I need)
I grew up writing sermon notes every Sunday.
My parents guided us along from sleeping throughout the service, to sitting quietly with some toys, to drawing, and then drawing something related to the sermon--however vaguely--to copying their sermon notes, and finally writing our own. This all happened so gradually and naturally that it is still a habit with me today--one I am profoundly thankful for, as it helps me to focus (and stay awake, during those tough caffeine-immune days!)
Of course, it's also a transferrable skill and an invaluable advantage when you're in the classroom. My appreciation for this reached a whole new level when I entered university--but I digress.
I am grateful for this habit, though I used to chafe at the amount of space all those years' worth of sermon note books took up in my limited shelf space. It's true that I seldom flip back on those notes, and have forgotten most of those sermons. But like I once read somewhere, just because you've forgotten a sermon doesn't necessarily mean you didn't benefit from it. Just like how you are alive today because of all the meals your mother cooked for you, even though you can't remember them, even though you perhaps didn't like all of them.
Notes help you to remember. And sometimes as you reread them you catch something in the gleanings that you missed before.
Here is one thought that I found when gleaning through my sermon notebooks, from a sermon my father preached a while back. I loved this thought--it opened my eyes to the significance of these two words, which we so often use almost interchangeably, almost unthinkingly, when we talk about God.
Mercy and grace--two separate things that together symbolize the completeness of God's love and goodness towards us.
They are similar, aren't they, and yet they have such beautifully different meanings:
Mercy is not getting what you deserve;
whereas grace is getting what you don't deserve.
To have a God who shows us both is indeed something to be awed by.
Mercy was Christ dying on the cross to take away the condemnation hanging over our heads.
Grace was Christ giving us hope, the Spirit to change and guide us, and most of all His love to empower us.
Without one, divine love would be different, would be less than perfect, would not fulfill how devastatingly needy we are. Why they are so easily blended into each other is because when we give thanks for one, very naturally (and rightly) we give thanks for the other, we recognize how intrinsically linked they are. We need both.
And He is both.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are