About Mercy

One time I was getting a root canal and the endodontist took one look at me, found out my majors were English and Music, and flat out told my mother “Oh this one’ll never get a job, I can tell.” That root canal was a painful experience for a number of reasons, and after that comment the tears in my eyes weren’t really caused by the whine of the dentist drill.

However, you know what they say: sticks and stones may break my bones, but comments made by complete strangers over a dentistry chair will never hurt me. Or something like that.

It seems pretty clear that people have a hard time seeing any practical value in the majors I chose. The assumption is something along the lines of “Oh, so you want to teach?” Welllllll. No, not exactly. I promise I do have ambitions for my life other than to sit in my parents’ basement and read all day and all night, but in college, I’ve loved studying what I enjoy. And I guess that’s why I picked English, and why I actually stuck it out with Music.

I’m thinking maybe those people who assume I’ll be a teacher someday are right–because if you love something enough, you’re likely going to tell people about it. People are evangelistic about their passions. Maybe I will become a teacher of sorts; maybe I will become a nerd.

I don’t know that much, but I can tell you about what I’ve been learning lately. Usually I reserve this sort of raving about English Literature to one (or sometimes two) friends, but tonight there’s several things I’ve thought about. There are three authors, mainly: a guy named William Shakespeare, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and a poet named Edward Rowland Sill, who was not only decidedly not a contemporary of the previous two, but was also not their countryman. He was born in Connecticut in 1841 and I don’t know much else about him. I’m not sure anyone does.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters makes a lovely speech about the ‘quality of mercy.’ It’s a well-known section, so you may recognize it:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likst God’s 

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice, none of us 

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy (MOV IV. i. 184-203)

Perhaps it’s more beautiful in the context of the play, but I can’t get over it. I can’t get over the concept of mercy, which is odd because I often go about my day more-or-less unconcerned that I trust in a just and merciful God. The Sill poem I’ll include further down talks more about this lack of mercy in the world–it proposes that, while good men may be just, anyone who recognizes his own foolishness must plead to God for mercy, because God is the only one who grants grace.

I think there must be a balance there that’s hard to grasp: understanding both the bad news of the Gospel–that we’re all sinners deserving of death–and the wildly good news that Christ offers grace. Sometimes we downplay the bad news and say that we’re not really that bad–or, as Dorothy Sayers says, we consciously or unconsciously think God’s standards too picky or unrealistic to be worth striving for. From The Mind of the Maker: “The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling.”

Other times perhaps we think of grace as something God owes us. To be fair, we think, God has to offer grace to everyone. But that’s starting to sound more like justice, which God does extend to everyone. God is just. And that justice would lead to one sentence for everyone, were God not also merciful…

Anyway,

In Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character is thinking through all the things he’s learned in his study of various disciplines. One of these is divinity, which he rejects on the basis that man’s nature compels him to sin, and since sin’s wages are everlasting death, there is no hope or recourse to be found. That seems logical, and it might be true except that Faustus leaves off the second part of the verse he quotes. In the verse Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Faustus stops after the word “death.” He doesn’t consider the “gospell-y” part of the verse. Nor does he accept that he does have sin; rather, he’s so proud of all his learning that ultimately he desires to be as God.

If you haven’t read Faustus, I’ll just tell you now–it all kind of goes downhill from there.

So here’s my favorite of the three things that’ve been going through my head:

The Fool’s Prayer, by Edward Roland Sill

It’s pretty long, so if you’re interested, there’s an external site you can find it on. It’s beautiful, and I think it speaks for itself pretty well, so I won’t ramble on about it, except to say it always reminds me how precious God’s mercy is–and how undeserved.

I just finished a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by a man named Nabeel Qureshi. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Near the end, when contemplating the incredible pain his conversion to Christianity will cause himself and his family, he reads Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, verse 6, and writes the following:

“I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I do, but I can never attain it. God will bless me anyway? Who is this God who loves me so much, even in my failures?” (Qureshi, 276)

Having grown up with the concept of grace, I take it for granted. That’s crazy. These are things I’ve been thinking through, and if you want to chime in, comment away:)

Have a lovely day, and thanks for reading.

<><Jo

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I’m Recommending a Band

Tenth Avenue North. There you go. You don’t actually have to read any more of this blog post, cause mostly I’ll just be talking about how I’ve enjoyed their music lately, and maybe I’ll quote parts of the songs that have been most helpful to me. I’m not telling you to go listen to them. I’m inviting you to listen, because maybe you’ll enjoy it. That’s all.

If you are still reading, and you aren’t really sure what band I’m trying to recommend, I’ll be clearer. The band is Tenth Avenue North, and if you listen to Christian radio, chances are you’ve heard them already, especially their songs “Love is Here” and “By Your Side.” So I’m not being hipster at all, I guess, because they’re kinda semi-popular, maybe? I don’t know.

Friends know I tend to go through phases of really really enjoying a band for a short period of time, before moving on to something new (looking at you, Jukebox the Ghost). So it could be I’ll read this in a few years and shudder at what horrible judgment I had to recommend this horrible band Tenth Avenue North.

I don’t think that’ll happen, but maybe.

The main reason I’ve enjoyed this particular band lately is because their songs seem to be very much based in Scripture. If they aren’t quoting Scripture directly, the themes of their songs line up quite well with what I believe. Distinction: they line up with what I believe, and with what I know, which isn’t always the same thing as what I happen to be feeling at any given time. I can assent intellectually to any number of truthful things, but it doesn’t mean I wholeheartedly live every day in light of the truth.

My heart has this infuriating tendency to rebel against my head.

So on their album called “The Light Meets the Dark,” for example, when I hear the following words, I connect in a way that’s rare with a lot of modern Christian music:

I’ve got voices in my head and they are so strong // And I’m getting sick of this, oh Lord, how long // will I be haunted by the fear that I believe // My hands like locks on cages // of these dreams I can’t set free // …please Lord how long // Will I be held captive by the lies that I believe // My hear’ts in constant chaos and it keeps me so deceived // …My mind is like a building burning down // I need your grace to keep me…from the ground // And my heart is just a prisoner of war // A slave to what it wants and to what I’m fighting for // Empty my Hands

“…My hands like locks on cages of these dreams I can’t set free.” Man. I am frustrated to no end by this, my apparent inability to stop fretting about what I wanted or how I thought it should be. We can only pray that God will empty our hands for us, changing our hearts to desire what He desires for us.

Or how about this one:

…We’re caught in the in between // Of who we already are and who we are yet to be // And we’re looking for love but finding we’re still in need // It’s only what we have lost will we be allowed to keep // And we’re waiting but our eyes are wandering // To all this earth holds dear //

Yeah–there’s a pretty good picture of being a new creation in Christ, and having a new spirit, a recreated heart, but a very human body which still gets easily distracted. The song continues,

Look at all the pretty things that steal my heart away // …Lord I love so many things that keep me from Your face // Come and save me // …We run to finally be set free // But we’re fighting for what we already have received //

I need that reminder, that Christ has already redeemed me, but that, day to day, His righteousness does not come naturally or easily for me. In fact, I tend to fail miserably. If I’m attempting this on my own, I will get distracted every time, maybe even by “pretty things,” things that aren’t necessarily bad, but that keep me from seeking Christ first.

So, anyway, those’re some of the songs on this one particular album. It would be ridiculous of me to go quote all of the songs, as much as I think they’re worth the while. The other album I have is called “Over and Underneath,” and while I may not quote much from it, I’ll describe it. It’s a little like reading the Psalms: full of honest crying out to God for comfort and satisfaction.

The last track on the album is called “Hallelujah.”

Aaaaaaaaah. It’s just good.

Their other two albums I don’t own, but I listen on youtube/spotify (which is what I guess I’m recommending you do–after that, if you want to, then you can buy all their albums so they can keep doing what they’re doing:). One’s called “The Struggle;” the other is “Cathedrals.” I’ll be briefer with these:

Cathedrals

We were built by the hands of love
Redeemed in spite of what we’ve done
We are the spirit’s dwelling place
And now, children of the light
Fight back darkness with delight
Lift your eyes up to His face
Let joy take temptation’s place

Open up our souls to feel Your glory
Lord, we are a desperate people
Your cathedrals
God, fill this space
Let joy take temptation’s place
We will taste and see You as You are

Father, let Your kingdom come
Keep us from our lesser loves
Nothing else can satisfy
Like the joy found in Your eyes

May we see You as You are.

Forgive Me

I hear you calling out my name, Lord
But I can’t look you in the eye
So I, I just stay away
I tried and tasted what’s forbidden
And it filled me with delight
But now I’m still hungry inside

Forgive me, forgive me Lord, for living, like I’m not yours
I forget, how kind you are
You are light for my foolish heart

Oh God, I let intruders into
The garden of my soul
Foxes are running wild
I thought you were holding on me now
To keep me from being free
How could I have been so wrong

What You Want

Everyday, I’ve been feeling the pressure
I always gotta know the plan
It’s a weight that I’ve tried to shoulder
I thought I could, but I can’t
And I’m so tired of chasing dreams
When I am wired to let you lead
You’re changing my heart
To want what You want
To love how You love
And that is enough
There’s no greater plan
That I need to know
You only ask me to follow

Okay, Jo. You’ve now written practically a treatise on this one band. [By the way, it is okay that I reprinted some lyrics here, isn’t it? I’m not by any means trying to rip off anyone’s creative work–on the contrary, I hope to get people listening. Hey reader, if you know the answer to that question, let me know, please, if I’ve inadvertently done something horrible by publishing this post.]

So what? Why are you praising this one Christian band so much?

There are two answers to that question.

  1. I’m a nerd.
  2. It’s not really the band that’s the point. It’s what they’re singing about. A short little blurb on the cover of one of their albums goes, in part, like this: “…we wanted those who heard our songs to hear the gospel, that is, that we don’t earn grace, grace was earned for us.”

And that’s an incredibly hopeful thing to remember.

Thanks for reading (if you made it this far!),

<><Jo

The Story of My Life

The power at my house went out around 8:00 in the evening, and so we all went to bed early. I’ve been tossing and turning for the 4 ½ hours since then, and I think I know why.

I need to tell you a story.

This story begins with an early memory, such an early memory, in fact, that I can’t place it for certain. It might be from when I was four or three or even two. It’s just a glimpse—it’s like watching a fifteen-second clip, and I can only reconstruct what must have been its context. For those who care, my sister says these kinds of memories are called “snapshot” memories. Or maybe it’s “flashbulb” memories, I’m not sure.

Anyway, one of these memories is just of me and my mom, where she draws me this simple diagram and explains it, clearly and simply.

If we were talking in real life, I’d ask if you had a pen and paper so I could draw it out for you, it’s that clear in my mind.

First, she draws a large circle, with two stick figures inside—one big and one little. I’m not even sure they’re full stick figures; they’re more just like smaller circles. The figures in the circle, she tells me, are like God and you, Jo. When you’re in the circle with God, that’s when you’re happiest because that’s when you’re obeying him. But sometimes, Jo—here she draws a line from my figure to a place outside the circle—sometimes you decide not to obey God; you might lie, or do something naughty, and that keeps you away from God. It’s not happy, being outside God’s family circle, she says. But do you know what God does, when that happens? He comes—she draws a line from the God-figure towards mine—and brings you back to where He is—she completes the route from the two figures back into the circle—because He loves you and He knows that’s where you’ll be happy.

Is it a perfect analogy? No, probably not. Is there such a thing as a perfect analogy that three-year-olds can understand? If you know of one, please oh please let me know about it.

I’m sure at some point there was discussion of four-year-old repentance, and this particular conversation, I feel sure, was more in response to little me having done something requiring disciplinary measures than specifically sharing the gospel. The memory’s just slightly hazy.

However, there’s the beginning of my story, as I see it. God saw fit to put me in a family where the parents talked to their children about Him when they were young, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. Now, that very fact used to make me feel insecure about my testimony, as if, somehow, it wasn’t a very powerful testimony at all; that maybe I should live a little more dangerously/stupidly so I’d have a “real” story to tell. I’m pretty sure there’s a verse about that; pretty sure Paul says that’s a terrible idea. Which it is.

If I can just interject something here—in between the beginning of this story and the end (which isn’t really the end, just the chapter I’m on at the moment)—it’s to say that often I’m tempted to be humble about the wrong sort of thing. I look back and reflect on choices I’ve made and things I’ve done, and I think, man, Jo, what an idiot. You haven’t learned anything. You thought you were all smart at such-and-such an age, and you really had so much growing to do.

Well, okay, that’s fine, up to a point. Humility about my own efforts? Yes please—I need more humility than I have. The danger is that, in focusing those negative thoughts on what my past has looked like, I forget God’s great work in my life. In trying to negate my own worthiness, I risk negating God’s power in having changed and continuing to change me into the person He designed me to be.

Do I continue to grow and become more mature? Yes, I hope so and I pray that’s the case. Will I probably look back at this very blog post and think, ugh, you sound as if you had it all together, which you didn’t. That doesn’t change God’s role in all this. I forget so many times that we can boast in who Jesus Christ is, and in what He’s done for us. The trouble is remembering that during the times when I have messed up, and all I really feel like doing is crawling in a hole until the elephants forget me. So here’s me, remembering.

Once there was a little girl named Jo who, as we’ve seen, often had to have a disciplinary talk given her, involving a circle and two stick figures and God. I lied a lot back then. And I stole candy one time from this store called David’s, and when I tried to share the loot, my mom marched me back into the store to apologize through my tears. That did the trick.

I know my parents had several talks with me about Jesus and how I could be saved, but I always point to one day in the backyard when my seven-year-old brother told me all he knew about God, and I prayed and was saved. Now I know there’s all kinds of opinions of just how “saved” a five-year-old can be, and that’s fine. Debate it all you want. Here’s what I knew: I’d been taught that God was great, and that He was good. I believed it. I’d been taught that I fell short of who He wanted me to be; that I’d disobeyed and “gone away from the family circle.” I believed that. And I’d been taught that He loved me so much He sent his son, Jesus, to die on the cross for me, thereby bringing me back into fellowship with Him. I believed that.

Was that the end of the story of salvation? No, of course not. But it was a good beginning, and I think there are many things children can know and understand, even if they no knowledge of the intricacies of theology and Scripture and, yeah, all those gloriously confusing grown-up things.

As Jo grew, her outsides looked pretty dang good, spiritually. She knew all the Sunday School answers, and she was pretty much the top of her AWANA class at memorizing scripture. Looking back, it’s so tempting to negate all that, knowing how much of my success at AWANA was driven by competition and pride at being the best. But God was working.

Inside was kind of a different story. From the age of eight to when I was twelve or so, I remember really struggling with the assurance of my salvation. I was terrified of hell; I had a recurring nightmare involving judgment and the end of the world and a whole lot of darkness. I still remember bits of it, and it still frightens me just a little. I’d wake up in the night crying; asking God to save me from hell. I wasn’t convinced, I guess of a couple things: 1. That I’d truly done all I needed to be saved and 2. That He would keep His word and keep me.

Fast forward a few years: a move to a different town, a different church, and one lady—about my mother’s age—who shared with me something that changed my life. I don’t know how we’d gotten started talking, but I respected her for her kindness and her gentleness towards me and my family. When we’d joined the church, I had publicly rededicated my life to Christ. I wanted to have a certain date in my mind; a date on which I knew that I believed in God. So I did, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve done—still—because I actually took the microphone the preacher was offering me and said something mumbly about why I was making the decision.

This sweet lady came up after the service and told me something I never would have imagined. She said that she had struggled with the same sort of doubts when she was my age. She encouraged me in my desire to have a certain date that I could defend against the enemy’s lies that I somehow had not done enough, or that I’d imagined the whole thing, or that God wasn’t faithful to save. With her words I realized I wasn’t alone—that people of all ages struggled with doubt, and that I was important enough to her for her to share her story with me.

It was also around that time that I started writing prayers in all my journals instead of normal entries. My sister and I joke that, once I hit eleven or twelve, my old journals cease to be as interesting/embarrassing/fun to read back over. You can still find mentions of events and phases, but there’s a lot of “Dear God’s,” and “Heavenly Father’s” to wade through. I’ve become increasingly thankful for those prayers, silly as some of them were. Remember how I said it’s a temptation for me to think that I’m always starting from scratch spiritually—that nothing that’s come before has really been anything of worth? Well, yeah, none of my goody-two-shoes effort has been of worth, but those journals are a testimony to God’s working in one preteen girl’s life, and some of that teenager’s concerns are going to seem pretty silly, in hindsight.

Did I mention that I still had a problem with pride? Well, I did—pride, and what others thought of me, timidity (another thing altogether from humility!)—these marked my inward life. I had an ungracious, hostile mindset toward one of my sisters, which I halfheartedly would attempt to fix every now and then, when the guilt got too uncomfortable. Over the years I let the broken relationship stay broken, until I’d pretty much hardened myself against listening to her or trying to understand her. It might be helpful at this point to be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son—especially the ending. See Luke 15:)

It’s such a lovely, lovely story, what with the father running indecorously down the road to meet his wayward boy. But there’s a sour note that comes when the elder son refuses to celebrate his own brother’s return. It’s not fair, are his words (sort of). I do everything right, and no one notices. He does everything wrong, and you celebrate.

Oh, God. That was me. That older brother who didn’t have enough understanding to see that his father’s love for both of them was made evident in his grace for the one “who did everything wrong.” As if the older son had done “everything right.” NO! He hadn’t. He lacked any sort of love and compassion toward his brother, who had been running to darkness and was brought back to the light of his father’s love. His brother, whom God had brought back into the family circle.

It’s funny, what ways God chooses to make Himself known in our lives. His grace takes many forms: more than once in history, God’s mercy has been displayed through a baby. At this point, my story intersects with the stories of others. I can’t tell their stories, because I am not them and they aren’t my story. This is what I know, however: God brought me and my family into a situation where there couldn’t be all this faked unity in public and lack of grace in private. He began to soften my grace-less heart, and gave me love for someone I hadn’t yet met. Slowly, He mended my relationship with my sister, and I praise Him for it.

That was the previous chapter in my life-story, and its effects are still being seen in the current chapter. There have been other things that have happened; other things I’ve learned and am continuing to learn. I have seen Him restore good, old friendships that I had let die, and, despite how lukewarm I can be, I have seen how He draws me back—even if that means taking me through times of despondency and emptiness. I have realized more and more that faith is a gift, that the very desire to know God is given by God Himself.

I have seen that God is very great, and that He is very good.

 

If you ask me, I will tell you all this in person. If you have a question, either about my story or about the God I’m talking about, leave a comment and I’ll figure out a way for you to contact me.

Thank you, so much, for reading.

<><Jo