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Who We Are Instead

Most of my readers will be old enough to recall the time when we couldn't carry all of the music in the entire known universe around on a device that fit in our pocket. We had to listen to compact discs (or CD's for short). I'm actually old enough that as a kid I listened to things on cassette tape, but that's neither here nor there. I think I finally got my first iPod when I was in high school, but prior to that seminal event, I carried around a big binder full of CD's. Perhaps hinting at my burgeoning Type A personality, I would often remove all of them from the sleeves and re-organize them John Cusack in "High Fidelity" style. Alphabetical by artist, and then chronological by record release date was a popular way to go. Keep in mind, this was before we could just look stuff like that up on the internet. It often required me to keep the liner notes (which I always did) and check the dates. This was a real thing I did, and I did it often.

Within that CD collection were several albums by the band Jars of Clay. If your summers as a child included something call "Church Camp" I would be willing to bet that you are familiar with them. In 2003, they released an album called "Who We Are Instead," which we all bought thinking there was a cover of "Amazing Grace" on it... There wasn't. If you're a band like that and you write a song and name it "Amazing Grace," you know exactly what you are doing, right? Good marketing, Jars of Clay! But recently the title of that album - which I actually didn't listen to all that much - started to take on a knew meaning for me. But I'm getting to that.

Lest you all stop reading thinking this will be a song by song review of a now 15 year old album, I'll get to my point. I have been thinking a lot about grace lately. I am someone who grew up in and around the Church. Then I studied religion in college. I have spent a lot of my life hearing about, learning about, and talking about grace. A lot of my life. But here's the thing: I can't remember that many times when I actually tried it out.

The best way I can frame this is in the context of relationships because we are, after all, relational people. Every romantic relationship I have had to date has ended with one person breaking up with the other one. The reasons are various and specific to each relationship, as is common. But over the years I found that I was still harboring some resentment for the girls that I had been in relationship with, which I suspect (or hope?) is also pretty common. What makes this interesting is it didn't seem to matter who had ended things. Her idea or mine, I was still holding onto some sort of anger or sadness or grief. And it was tearing me up inside.

Let's pause here for a moment to consider why that might be. The answer is pretty simple really: we are made to be in relationship. Don't hear that as me telling you that you have to have a significant other to be fulfilled. You don't, at least not in the romantic sort of sense. But I do believe you have to have someone (or many people) that you find significant and to whom you are significant. We were made for this. This is literally how your body functions: in relationship. So anytime there is a break in relationship, we feel it on a deep, deep level. A level so deep that we sometimes are not even aware of it.

Speaking of that, I started noticing this trend within myself. And so I did a deep dive of journaling and talk therapy to figure it out. I bubbled this idea out with friends and cohorts in ministry over the course of several months. I landed on three ideas: Grace, Justice, and Love.

1. Grace: The Grave Has No Claim On Me

Not all that long ago, someone close to me did something to upset me. I don't want to be anymore specific than that for the sake of anonymity. Suffice it to say, what happened made me very angry and frustrated. I sat down to write out a perfectly worded text that would communicate exactly how angry I was and this person was giving no regard to how what s/he was doing was making me feel. I am a writer, so just believe me when I tell it was a good one! It was the "I'm mad at you!" text to end all "I'm mad at you!" texts.

But here's the thing: I never sent it. In a brief moment, one so fleeting that I didn't realize what had happened until hours later, grace intervened. It just so happened I had a worship set to prepare for, so instead of sending that text, I sat down to play worship music. As minutes turned into hours, it became less of a rehearsal and more of a time of worship for me. God had something to tell me and He really wanted me to hear it. It became clear when I reached a new song by Phil Wickham:

Then through the silence
The roaring Lion
Declared the grave has no claim on me
— Phil Wickham, "Living Hope"

The Grave has no claim on me. In a brief moment of silence, I got a nudge saying, "Do this instead. Come connect with me. I have something to tell you." The grave told me to write a text that was all about how I was feeling. The grave told me to make whatever the person in question was going through all about me. The grave told me to forego grace in favor of anger, which is so often accompanied by the un-truth that doing so will make you feel better. The grave wanted this relationship to break because that's what graves are all about, if you think about it. (With a very notable exception.)

But the grave has no claim on me. Or you. I believe that is true regardless of the faith you may or may not profess. This thing happened and it changed everything forever. So no matter where this essay finds you, you have the ability to choose grace in any given moment. Why? Because the grave has no claim on you. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

I swear to you, dear reader, up until that moment in my music room when I chose not to send that text, I can't remember a time I actually chose grace and hope and love. I am certain I have done it, or at least said the words. But this was the first time I remember deleting a message and feeling an actual weight being lifted from my heart. And you know what? It felt exactly right. Because we were made for this!

You are free to choose how you respond to any and all perceived slights or attacks. And here's the really, really cool part: you can choose grace every single time. This is a power you have. But even when we know and believe this, we (myself included) don't use this superpower nearly as often was we could be. Why is that?

2. Justice: Relient K(nows) Best

So what's to stop us from choosing grace in every moment of every day? Well, obviously we are flawed human beings, so there's that. But still, I think we could be doing grace more. I try to keep that thought in the front of my mind these days: what does choosing grace/love/hope look like in this situation?

I think the answer here is that we hold onto some (flawed) sense of justice. Going back to my example of the person who upset me, why would I hesitate to extend forgiveness and love and grace to that person? Again, I am someone who thinks and talks and writes about this all the time. Shouldn't that be the thing I do? The answer took some time and assistance (S/O to Richard Webb, Chris Kimpston, Jamie Richards, and Jeremy Poland!) to parse out but eventually I realized that a big part of why I hold onto these feelings and why I was hesitant to delete that text message in favor of a more forgiving one is because I was worried what would happen to me if I did. I remember having some semblance of the thought, "Well I can't just forgive (this person). That's like letting (this person) off the hook! Sure, s/he will feel better, but what about me?! I'll still be upset!" I know, right? Gross. I might as well have stomped my feet and said, "No fair! No fair!"

If someone hurts me, I should get to hurt them. That's the deal, right? Wrong! (I'm sure that was a big spoiler...) I should have known this, because Relient K told me a long time ago:

The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”
— Relient K, "MmHmm"

Extending grace means we have to let go of fair. Because, dear friends, this whole thing isn't fair. Grace flies in the face of our sense of fairness or rightness or logic or reason. When I think about what God did, literally dying to put us back in community and free us up to choose the beautiful stuff instead, I am overwhelmed by how unfair it really is. Jesus gave everything, for which we often totally ignore Him or (more often) complain to Him. How is that fair? It's not. It's not at all.

God's sense of justice is totally different than yours and mine. And that is really because of that whole thing with the grave I mentioned earlier. In a world wherein death still has a say in how things go, maybe the mean text message makes sense. But that's not the world we live in. In this world, the one wherein the enemy has been defeated, justice takes on a whole new meaning. Jesus' ultimate act of grace - the most unfair thing that has ever happened - declared a new reality for us all. That means the stuff that used to make sense won't make sense anymore.

For a long time I held onto my pain and resentment because I thought, "I won't feel better until person x knows how much s/he hurt me!" But this is the new reality. This is the world of grace that makes life not fair. This is literally who we are now, whether we realize it or not. Speaking of...

3. Love: Who We Are Instead

So as you might have guessed by now, I didn't send that mean text after all. I sent a different one. I suppose I could scroll through my phone so I can tell you the exact I wrote, but I'll just let Bob Goff take this one for me:

Jesus talked to His friends a lot about how we should identify ourselves. He said it wouldn’t be what we said we believed or all the good we hoped to do someday. Nope, He said we would identify ourselves simply by how we loved people. It’s tempting to think there is more to it, but there’s not. Love isn’t something we fall into; love is something we become.
— Bob Goff, "Everybody, Always"

The final line of this paragraph is something I suspect I'll remember for the rest of my life. You don't fall in love, my friends. You become love. Just let that sink in for a moment.

After I spent my time listening to God on the night in question, I suddenly didn't want to be mean or angry or resentful anymore. I wanted to be love. This is a person I care about - the ones who can hurt you typically are - and making sure s/he knew that became far more important than how I was feeling. So the text that got sent had less first person pronouns in it. It was a text that conveyed how much I cared and that I was here to help with whatever was going on.

The point of that story is not "Look how good of a person Chris is!" It serves a small example of what can happen when we stop trying to fall in love and start trying to become it. That's the idea that finally made that Jars of Clay album title from 2003 make sense to me. Love is who we are instead. And as Bob puts it, we want to make it more complicated than that. Surely there must be more to it. But there isn't, there just isn't. Love is all there is and love is all you need.

Ever since that evening, I've been actively trying to choose love more often in my life. I fail more often than I succeed, but I try not to beat myself up too much about it. Sometimes it's easy to find the Divine Flow and sometimes it seems impossible. It means putting ourselves last, my friends. In every interaction. All the time. I don't mean be reckless, there is such a thing as healthy boundaries! But I wonder if sometimes we use that as a reason to choose the stuff that's not love when the real reason is that it's difficult or inconvenient or scary or intimidating. Or because we still want some old school justice.

I believe it gets easier the more often you do it. In the same book I quoted earlier, Goff tells us that, "When joy is a habit, love is a reflex." There are millions of choices presented to you every single day. You can choose to see the joy and goodness and wonder in the world or not. But if you do, I think you'll find yourself becoming love and grace and hope to others more and more often.

We are not mean text sending, hate harboring, resentful human beings. The Resurrection made sure of that. This is who we are instead.