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stumbling into graceConfessions of a Sometimes Spiritually Clumsy Woman
By LISA HARPER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Lisa Harper
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEWE SCARED?
Why is God doing this? Though it is blasphemous to think it, our whole being cries out that this is unfair of him, that our grief and pain are disproportionate to our sin, that we have been abandoned. —D. A. Carson
So, today I've been thinking about scary things.
It all started with a phone call from my doctor. Actually, I should probably back up a bit further in my story and explain that I was raised in a family where you pretty much had to slice an artery before going to the doctor. No missing school because of the sniffles for us, though coughing up blood might qualify for skipping homeroom. Much as parents lecture their unappreciative offspring with tales of hiking through snowdrifts and milking seventeen cows before eating breakfasts of gruel, I'm tempted to lecture some of my seemingly wimpy friends about the dangers of hypochondria, which is why I was really flustered by my response to this recent phone call from my dermatologist.
I wasn't initially alarmed when her number appeared on my cell phone screen, not that she'd ever called before. I mean, we don't play tennis or belong to the same book club or anything. Our interaction has been limited to her peering at suspicious moles and making soothing small talk while I perch awkwardly on a narrow steel table and try to keep a Kleenex-sized paper gown from exposing my other parts. But I was expecting a call from her office, because her nurse had informed me the previous week that they would call when they got the results of a biopsy she'd had done on a weird, bumpy "rash" that had been coming and going above my right ear for several years. I wasn't expecting Dr. Vincent's voice when I picked up. I assumed it was the receptionist or maybe some nurse who drew the short stick that day and had to make phone calls instead of doing cool stuff like stabbing people with syringes or freezing warts.
The moment I recognized the doctor's voice, I knew the "rash" wasn't the psoriasis my former dermatologist had diagnosed. (Frankly, that threw me off my game for a while, because he made me use prescription shampoo that caused me to smell like a mechanic. Plus, he performed a lot of liposuction in addition to mole gazing, and I was afraid every time he examined me he was going to suggest I get my cellulite sucked out.) And while Dr. Vincent spoke several reassuring sentences before saying the "C" word, all I heard was, "Waah, waah, waah, waah, waah, you have cancer!"
Then Dr. Vincent explained that, although they couldn't know the extent of the growth until it was surgically removed, it was the best kind of skin cancer to have and was more than likely contained. What I heard was, "There is a disgusting mass upside your head that's probably leaking poison into your brain right now!"
The doctor finally assured me that the surgical scar would be hidden underneath my hair. I heard, "You're going to look like the bride of Frankenstein and a mob of angry citizens carrying pitchforks and lanterns is going to chase you out of your village in the middle of the night."
Of course, I didn't utter any of those crazy concerns out loud to Dr. Vincent. I was completely rational and very polite throughout the phone call. But after we said goodbye, I pulled over into a Walgreens parking lot and began to cry. A few minutes later, I called one of my closest friends and broke the news. She told me not to worry and reminded me that she'd had two carcinomas removed from her chest and was doing fine now. Then she said she loved me but had to go because she was in the middle of fixing dinner. Since I've been such a stoic patient in the past and preferred to hole up alone with Sprite and saltines during flu bouts, I was surprised by my sudden need for compassion. I realized, with an embarrassed start, that I had wanted Kim to gasp and dissolve into empathetic sobs. I became acutely aware that I was scared.
The truth is, I've struggled with fear my whole life. I've only recently begun to pull it out from under the rug of denial. As a child, I was afraid my parents' divorce was at least partly my fault. Not too long after they split up, I became afraid of being permanently stained and unworthy after being sexually molested. I've been afraid of being abandoned by people who love me for as long as I can remember. I was afraid of disappointing my teachers in school, my professors in college, and my bosses at work. In my thirties, I began to be afraid of being single for the rest of my life. I really didn't want to end up as the weird lady in the neighborhood who lived in squalor with only cats for company.
I've also burned up way too much emotional energy being afraid of not being good enough, sweet enough, thin enough, or spiritual enough. And I've been especially anxious about being perceived as afraid, because I always assumed being afraid was a bad thing. However, I'm discovering that being afraid is simply a people thing. Middle age and an increased awareness of my own frailty have teamed up to convince me that fear is an inexorable part of the human condition.
For example, I was in group therapy with a guy last year who is an officer in the military. He's been part of an elite Special Forces unit for more than twenty years and has participated in combat in two wars on two different continents. He has numerous medals and commendations for bravery. And he looks the part of an American hero too. He has a square jaw, broad shoulders, and biceps that strain the seams of his shirts. Yet after a week of intense counseling, his steely veneer shattered and tears rolled down his cheeks as he confessed how scared he was of never measuring up to his dad's expectations.
Besides soldiers with father issues, I've met performers who get shaky knees and dry mouths just prior to going onstage, young moms who worry about whether or not they can truly bond with their babies, brilliant CEOs who battle swarms of internal butterflies at the thought of being downsized, and more than a few preachers terrified to admit their own sins. I don't think anyone is exempt from being at least momentarily frightened of something or someone. Whether based on an actual threat, such as a cancer diagnosis, or on some imaginary boogieman hiding in the basement, we all have fears. The good news is that we also have a Shepherd who is particularly tender with trembling sheep.
Jesus provides security during the scariest chapters of our stories.
Jesus and Scary Things Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:22–32 UPDATED NIV)
The Heart of His Story
I used to wonder why we had four different Gospel accounts in the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They all narrate the same basic timeline of Jesus' life and earthly ministry. So why didn't Matt, Marco, Johnny, and the Doc just meet at a local coffee shop with their laptops, brainstorm about what they had observed, and create a single literary masterpiece? Why four different versions of the same story?
Professors in seminary gave me multisyllabic academic answers to that question, but my all-time-favorite explanation came from an enthusiastic Vacation Bible School teacher we had when I was about ten or eleven years old. She told us to imagine four different people, standing on four different street corners, watching the same parade.
Then she said, "What do you think would happen if you got those four people together after the parade and asked them to describe what they saw?"
If memory serves me correctly, several hands shot up along with exclamations of, "Oooooh, oooooh, oooooh, I know!"
Then one of us blurted out that they would have described the parade differently because they had observed it from individual viewpoints. Our teacher nodded and explained that's what the first four books of the New Testament were like. Four different guys, observing the "parade" of Christ's life and ministry from four different vantage points, and then describing what they saw. Consequently, we have four wonderfully nuanced gospels, each having a distinctive purpose and flavor:
Matthew's purpose was to give his readers treasures, and his flavor is decidedly Jewish since he preached to a mostly Jewish audience.
Mark's purpose was to declare the good news of Jesus to the whole world (the word gospel comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means "a decree of good news." Mark was also the first writer to associate gospel with the Messiah), and his flavor is energetic.
John's purpose was passionately evangelistic (John 20:31), and his flavor is bold.
Luke's purpose was to help believers grow in their faith, and his flavor—probably like his bedside manner as a physician—is compassionate. And since I'm a sucker for anything soft, Luke tends to be my go-to guy. That's why I love Luke's repetition of the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew 5–7; Luke 6) here in chapter 12. If you're familiar with Christ's homily on a hill, you probably noticed that Dr. Luke edited the original sermon with a few unique additions and deletions of his own, a habit most good storytellers have. In fact, his use of the term little flock in verse 32 is so unique that this is the only place it can be found in the entire Bible. The phrase Luke coined comes from a double diminutive word coupling in Greek and can literally be translated "little, little flock."
Most commentaries skip right over that tender title and focus on the meat of Christ's message here, which was an admonition about being fearful, a how-to manual on trusting God with our financial portfolios and our physical health, and a warning against worrying. It's a practical sermon filled with great truisms we need to be tutored in over and over again: God will provide our needs. God will protect us. He has control over our bodies and our bank accounts. However, from where I'm standing, the affectionate pet name at the end of this passage is what really drives the Messiah's point home: "little, little flock." Only a Shepherd, who absolutely adores His sheep, would use that phrase. And that's the Shepherd I'll run to when I'm scared.
Hope for Our Ongoing Stories
I was back at the hospital today, but not for the basal cell carcinoma Dr. Vincent discovered lurking above my right ear. Thankfully, a surgeon was able to remove that whole "rash," and the resulting Frankenstein scar is only visible if I wear a hair fountain, which doesn't look that good on adults anyway. This morning's appointment was much more routine in nature. I went to the Centennial Women's Health Center in downtown Nashville to have my tah-tahs squashed (usually referred to as a mammogram by people with a sense of propriety).
After I signed in, a big nurse came out to greet me. She called me "honey" throughout the registration process and the walk back to the flattening area. The tiny droplets of fear that had rolled into my mind in the waiting room evaporated at the tenderness of her tone. And every time she said "honey," my heart turned up at the corners. It reminded me of the nickname Jesus gave us two thousand years ago: Don't be afraid, little, little ewes. It reminded me that we have a gentle, protective, and ever-present Shepherd.
Living in Light of His Story
Dear Jesus, help me cling to You when I'm afraid, instead of hiding in the dark by myself. Teach me to trust You no matter how scary my journey gets. I want to find my greatest treasure in Your constant presence. Amen.
Personal Reflection and/or Group Discussion Questions
1. What are three physical, tangible things you're afraid of (e.g., spiders, snakes, clowns)?
2. What are three emotional, less tangible things you're afraid of (e.g., abandonment, conflict, being misunderstood)?
3. When it comes to admitting fear, on the scale of one to ten below—with one being "stoic" and ten being "scaredy-cat"—circle the number that represents where you would place yourself:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
4. What do you think your closest friends and family would say are your greatest fears?
5. Describe a recent experience that really scared you.
6. Reread Luke 12:32. What does Jesus' term of endearment "little flock" mean to you in this season of your life?
7. Read Isaiah 43:1–3. How would you condense the theme of these verses into a song or movie title?
8. What's one practical thing you can begin doing today to apply that theme to your own life?
Please consider completing this sentence in your personal journal:
So, today I've been thinking about what I'm really afraid of, Jesus, and ...
Chapter TwoTHE VERY REAL PROBLEM WITH PANTYHOSE
For a compassionate man nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying ... This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor. —Henri Nouwen
So, today I've been thinking about binding things.
The thought flitted around my mind and then landed for a while, likely because I was wearing a pair of too-tight jeans. But as I shifted uncomfortably on the couch and pondered whether I really needed to go to the restroom or whether these pants were simply squeezing my bladder, I realized my aversion to confinement can be traced back to a pair of pantyhose.
They weren't even my hose; they were part of the ensemble my second cousin Brenda was wearing one Sunday night when we were thirteen years old. She had dressed up especially nice that evening, because she was to be the first of several of us who were going to speak about our experience at church camp. A few minutes before the worship service began, a serious deacon ushered us to the very front pew where a lone microphone loomed menacingly. Then, after an organ prelude and a few hymns, the pastor introduced us, and Brenda stood bravely, turned to face the congregation, and began.
She barely glanced at the notes she'd written neatly. Her voice rang out strong and true in the Missionary Alliance Church sanctuary. Some of her poise was due to the fact that it was the church she'd grown up in. These were her people. Plus, she was the star of the youth group. She volunteered at Vacation Bible School, she memorized lots of Scripture verses, and she sincerely liked the scary rapture movies the youth pastor forced us to watch. The rest of us plopped on that pew were jittery ruffians by comparison. Worse still, I was a known interloper, who went to their CMA summer camp and some of their youth group activities, but was actually a member of the big, pink Baptist church across the street.
Excerpted from stumbling into grace by LISA HARPER Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Harper. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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