“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth are called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) -remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph. 2:8-13, 22 NIV -emphasis added)
Remember where you once were…for some of us, this isn’t a fun thing to do. It might cause you to squirm in your seat a little, like I do. Nonetheless, I felt peace in the statement, which meant that it came from the Living Well -from the Holy Spirit- and not from my own mind. Remember where you once were.
You see, for me, remembering means (mentally and emotionally) going back to a place of being lost, of being against God, of feeling torn in two. So why would I choose to take a moment and remember those awful feelings? Especially for those of us that are future-thinkers, always facing and moving forward…why would I take myself back to that place, even for a brief moment?
Here’s why. Because as soon as the old feelings start to rise inside me like a ship taking in water, my heart is once again swept up in the lavish generosity of Jesus’ love for me. When I was a stranger to him (even knowing some things about him but still holding him at arms length -in a futile attempt to try and protect myself) he came after me. When I was running hard in the opposite direction, yelling to the darkest places of my soul that I was FINE and I could TAKE CARE OF MYSELF, he came and found me and called me beloved. When I was “separate from Christ”…excluded from the promise of God and foreign to the people of God…”without hope and without God in the world”…Jesus wooed me in a way that was both aggressively holy and perfectly tender.
How was this possible for a girl that grew up inside the church walls? How could the young woman, who went after “the call” of ministry with gusto, find herself being chased down by the living Spirit of God?
Here’s how. In the zealousness of youth group summer nights -with the cicadas sizzling and the worship circles around bon fires blazing- I traded a sweet invitation into something deep and real for the false security of my own independence. Through small decisions and big ones, I built a fortress of my own making and called it Christianity. I loved the message of the culture all around me, of the very age, that cheered on the doers and the go-getters and the independent women. The true message of the cross became obscured through bad teaching and even worse examples of an earthly kingdom-building with labels that sounded so godly.
Let’s get one thing clear- even if I had never heard one sermon that echoed of an ego-centric, self-fulfillment gospel, I was already living it. It was so much work, that striving. That earning love stuff. That trying so hard to not seem like I was trying, but internally building a case for being loved. I didn’t understand about a gift…but I knew of work and payment and earning your keep. I knew about proving your value and about picking only the battles that I was sure to win and oh yeah, also avoiding the mere suggestion of possible failure. I craved the recognition of success because then, finally, I would be both known and loved. To remember those years honestly makes me feel tired.
But oh, the love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!* My heart jumps inside my throat a little just thinking about it. The love of One that continued to pursue a daughter who rejected her inheritance for the lights of the city, for the lie of the serpent. This was a different kind of love, an otherworldly kind of love; a love that wasn’t shaken by my pushing away. This love was stronger, purer, deeper, older, and more true than anything I had known. The seeds of my childhood and of those early teen years, the promises of life and freedom, began to break open somewhere deep inside the dark, cold ground of my heart. The Spirit of God was still with me, even when I had pushed away everyone. When I had built those walls so strong that I had convinced myself that I could live within them and be okay. That I could create my own world there, alone. That I would be happy there, satisfied. Wouldn’t everything work out if I were queen?
But this love, this God-man called the Christ. He kept calling my name. He confronted me and wasn’t afraid. His eyes held all of me and didn’t flinch. And the pursuit of everything else (things that made me feel good, feel high, feel free, feel happy) became more elusive. The darkness wasn’t comforting anymore. I began to see the cracks in my hard-earned fortress and then through those cracks came a sweet aroma, something better than home. He was beckoning me to himself. To come out and to come up. To reach out from the walls and grasp his hand. To respond to an invitation. To accept a gift, freely, no strings attached. Was it that easy?
I’m prompted to also remember the moment of my surrender. John Mark McMillan has a song called, “Guns/Napoleon” that captures the feeling of what happened between me and Jesus and it was a lot like the lyric, “On the brink of kingdom come/And I’m standing in the flood/Of everything I ever was/And I’m laying down my guns.” He was conquering me. My little kingdom was falling and love was flooding the streets of my soul, tearing up the foundation of my beliefs. I stood in a church one Sunday morning hung-over and heartbroken. I was holding my niece, who had her tiny arms wrapped around my neck and her face nuzzled into my shoulder. We were singing worship songs (I don’t remember what song but I knew who we were seeking) and I felt water start to pour over my head and drip down my face and shoulders. It was spiritual water and I knew that the Holy Spirit was washing me clean. I held my niece and received the baptism and just surrendered. There was nothing else I could do, nothing else I wanted to do. I was ready to trust whatever this love meant.
Now, seven years later, the Lord prompts me to remember. To be willing to see who I was back then so that I can understand just how much he has done since then. The work of the Holy Spirit in my life has been a slow (by my silly standard of time) and quiet transformation. In Ephesians 2, Paul tries to explain this mystery, this becoming a work of God, ourselves and our very lives, as we are rooted and hidden in Christ. “In him” we are “being built together” to become a vessel of living water. We are the clay itself, in the hands of a skilled and wise potter, being continually molded and broken down and reshaped, in order to become a more perfect container to hold His thirst-quenching life. It was what he had “prepared in advance” for me -what he had always wanted for me.
And the beauty of it all? In our submission, we are granted the joy and fulfillment of participating in this work- an eternal work, one that brings real freedom to this world! The very thing that my soul was fighting to find, striving to become, seizing with my own hands and attempting to create in my own strength is revealed to be Christ himself. I am learning that we don’t have to stress about finding this perfect work (perfect career, perfect “ministry,” perfect relationship, etc.) to put our hands to…because we become the work that he is doing! The kind of kingdom that is worth anything begins as an internal one first. We submit ourselves to his trustworthy leadership and he establishes that kingdom. In simple terms, he is transforming us everyday, from the inside out. He is doing the spiritual work. Our strength amounts to nothing, so we (I -reminding myself!) can rest in his presence as the Holy Spirit-potter creates. This kind of love makes all things new. This love truly satisfies.
Especially for those of us that are chomping at the bit to get going, get on with it; for those of us who love to plan and build and move forward always; for us futurists and for the leaders and for anyone who doesn’t like to sit still… may we slow down enough to take a moment and remember. Remember where we once were and to meditate on all that God has done for us and through us. Because it’s all been an extravagant gift -the generous love of God is truly greater far.
*The Love of God is Greater Far, Frederick Martin Lehman (1868-1953)