Originally Written 12/8/09
This morning when I woke up, I noticed the strangest phenomenon, at least for San Jose, CA. My pipes were frozen. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my entire life and even when it has been extremely cold, the pipes haven’t frozen solid. It took me a while to figure it out, but I traced the source back to a small section of pipe that was left exposed several weeks (maybe even months) back due to construction. To say the least, I wasn’t happy with the situation.
I remember when the pipes were initially exposed because the person digging broke those pipes and allowed rocks into our plumbing system which led to three days of essentially no water and makeshift attempts at fixing the system. When all was said and done almost everything worked, but there are a few areas that still don’t work quite the same, as evidenced by the frozen pipes this morning. To say the least, I’m still not happy with the situation.
This morning as I grumbly prayed about it, I thought about how all the variables out of my control can lead to a grumbly Frances in general. I’ve been praying for months and nothing has happened. I’ve prayed to be more patient, more gracious in the meantime and it only happens for the briefest shining moments. I just haven’t been able to figure out what God is trying to teach me.
I thought back to what I wrote about the marshy road after the storm and how building up one’s inner life takes time. Here I am again in a situation where someone else didn’t finish the work they started–literally–and it has left my life upended. I guess I left one of the most important parts out of what I wrote previously.
When it comes to our inner life, unfinished work doesn’t simply effect our own lives. If you’ve been in leadership, or even a member of any organization, you’ve no doubt felt the effects of someone else’s incompetence or immaturity. Some clear signs you may have experienced:
- you’re asked to make up others’ work to cover up their procrastination, laziness, and/or disorganization;
- you walk on eggshells around particular people who are the emotional equivalent of a landmine;
- increasingly large parts of your day are devoted to putting out fires started by others;
- there is always an emergency;
- you find yourself fulfilling promises that someone else made;
- you experience “phantom stress,” (as my friend Jesse calls it) where you have a general sense of malaise, but cannot easily pinpoint the source;
- you are merely valued for what you do, not who you are (especially a danger in church).
It is so frustrating to feel the effects of another person’s emotional immaturity! Perhaps you’re the one making promises, exploding, and starting fires. I’ve certainly had my share of those moments as well. One of the most difficult parts of life together is that our messy inner life doesn’t tend to stay contained to our own lives.
Getting married has taught me more about this topic than any other arena. It became clear very quickly that my messy inner life could spill over to my husband and vice versa. But we are called to love and submit to one another because of the model of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:21-33).
Paul makes no mistake in this parallel. The way I am called to behave with my husband is exactly how the Church is called to behave with one another. We are called to: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:13-14). Unity is the highest form that love can take.
But…before Paul instructs us to bear with one another, he instructs us to live as the redeemed beings that we are:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:5-12).
As far as I can see it, I have two responsibilities as a leader. First, I am responsible for allowing God into every part of my life, so that I might be transformed into his likeness. I am supposed to allow God to “take off” my destructive characteristics and put on new ones. I used to think this process was only about me, but I can now see the relational reasoning behind it.
I also realize the irony of this statement, since the people who need help the most are the least likely to be able to empathize with how they effect others. When we refuse to get better, to allow God to take his time with our souls, we are undermining the unity of the church, not to mention our leadership and relationships with others. Further, we’re modeling a toxic lifestyle that repels people who are already far from God. All I can say about is that God never intended for us to live like that, for our sake and the sake of others.
My second responsibility is to bear with others as we all endeavor to change and grow. Believe me, I am not advocating becoming a doormat or giving others a carte blanche as long as they’re “working on it.” But people need to be forgiven and need to experience grace not only from God, but from those around them. We all need to know that we are redeemable. Even if you are one of the leaders who has refused to allow God into the deep, dark parts of your soul, you are redeemable.
I recently read a quote in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Honesty before God requires the most fundamental risk of faith we can take: the risk that God is good, that God does love us unconditionally. It is in taking this risk that we rediscover our dignity. To bring the truth of ourselves, just as we are, to God, just as God is, is the most dignified thing we can do in this life” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2005, 143-144).
From my own experience, I take it a step further. We need honesty before others. I stood before my church and told the truth about my messy life. I owned my struggles, my doubts, and my tears. I don’t say this because I see myself as a paragon of awesomeness(!). I say it because I know what happened as a result of my honesty. Others felt the freedom to be honest in return. I was prayed for, loved, forgiven, and accepted, with all my messiness. I was offered grace by my brothers and sisters in Christ, just as I am. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that exactly what we all want?
I am humbled by God’s grace as he continues to bear with me and forgive me time and time again. I am also humbled by those in the church who bear with me and love me enough to forgive my selfishness. I am awestruck that God never intends for us to simply live as the people we were before encountering his grace.
It is amazing what God can do when we let him in. God’s work not only transforms us as individuals, but our relationship with God and with other people. It is through this deep inner work that we might become the salt and light that Christ calls us to be. We cannot force it from the outside in. There is no faking it until you make it. Who we are on the inside bears fruit on the outside.
The prophet Haggai said, “The Lord who rules over all says, ‘Ask the priests about the law. If someone carries holy meat in a fold of his garment and that fold touches bread, a boiled dish, wine, olive oil, or any other food, will that item become holy?’ The priests answered, ‘It will not.’ Then Haggai asked, ‘If a person who is ritually unclean because of touching a dead body comes in contact with one of these items, will it become unclean?’ The priests answered, ‘It will be unclean.’” (Haggai 2:11-13)
When I read this passage, I thought of Christ. He was the game-changing moment when it comes to cleanliness. Consecrated food wouldn’t make things around it holy, but Christ did. He had the ability to make things around him clean when nothing else would. His holiness spread to others. It was contagious. Perhaps as we are changed through encounters with Christ, we will have his ability to bring health to others.
And if we won’t allow Christ to clean us, what are we really bringing to those around us?