Growing In Grace

God is love and all who live in love live in God
and God lives in them…Such love has no fear
because perfect love expels all  fear.
If we are afraid it is for fear of judgment
and this shows that his love
has not been perfected in us.
—First John 4:16&18 NLT

I grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois similar to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, where there is common familiarity and no strangers wander the streets. When I was five years old my dad gave me a nickel for ice cream and I casually made my way downtown alone; blonde curls bouncing, black patent leather shoes clicking on the concrete sidewalk for seven or eight blocks in search of the cone. The local cab driver picked me up and took me to the police station and there I sat in a huge wooden chair, entertaining the officers with my childish antics until my frantic father arrived to take me home. Children were safe in Herrin, and crime was virtually non-existent. There was a warmth about that town that you don’t very often find today. In truth, small towns have their benefits and their detriments.

My parents attended a house of worship, one where unusual occurrences were commonplace. People often came to the front of the church for prayer for various assortments of ailments and many of them left completely whole, relieved of their pain and suffering. It wasn’t at all unusual to see someone come in a wheelchair and leave without it. Afterwards, the ominous steel chair placed at the front of the house… a constant reminder to those who entered that hallowed place of God’s miracle working power.

I’m sure the music I heard in that church left a lifelong impression on me, and I still remember the words and chords to every old hymn sung there. The choir bellowed fervently with such great enthusiasm that it was hard for the congregation to stay in their seats. We’d all rise, hands clapping, hearts lifted toward heaven, spirits soaring, caught up in the deep and genuine emotion of praise to the Creator.

The minister had a theatrical approach to sermonizing that kept all of us enraptured. He painted a vivid picture of heaven and hell, and I’m quite certain there wasn’t a single soul in that house who hadn’t made a clear cut choice for their eternal home at the completion of the pastor’s message. It seemed all his messages had something to do with living right and behaving in an appropriate manner that would insure our heavenly home.

Expectations and rules of conduct were laid out precisely, most of them directed toward women and girls. The do’s and don’ts of that particular sect of Christianity were severe and when I was a child, I didn’t question them. But, as I became a teenager I struggled with the set of laws I was expected to adhere to. We couldn’t cut or trim our hair, no make-up was allowed, no long pants, or shorts. Therefore, I couldn’t participate in my high school marching band as pants were part of the uniform. No swimming with people of the opposite sex (called “mixed bathing”) in or around public pools, and we couldn’t go to movie theaters or parties, unless the party was thrown by people within our particular church. High School prom was absolutely taboo. Our clothing had to meet specific standards- high necks, long sleeves and dresses to or below the knee.

As long as we met the specifications, we were accepted with warmth and fellowship, but if the rules were broken in the slightest measure, the punishment was swift and sure.

When I was 16, I played the piano for the church and the minister noticed that I had trimmed an inch or two off of my waist length hair. He removed me from the platform, called me into his office and explained my disrespect had cost me my position. He promised to show me scriptural proof of my sin, but as the days and weeks progressed, the only proof of my hell-bound rebellion was his fiery sermons demanding absolute subservience to his interpretation of scripture. Love, grace, tolerance and acceptance were not a part of that denominational code, so as you can well imagine, I had a skewed understanding and interpretation of God and spirituality.  In fact, the only real knowledge I had of God was one of fear, and strict expectation. I lived everyday with the apprehension that I would go to hell for this infraction or that one. I was completely unaware of the true nature of God’s grace and benevolence.

And with that particular belief system shaping my life, I came into adulthood with a driving need for perfection. I had to make myself perfect in order to please God, and to be accepted by those around me. I was a people- pleaser in every sense of the word. Every aspect of my life was impacted by this gripping need for acceptance. I had no concept of my own identity, as it had been so wrapped up and defined by rules and expectations of my church.

This need for perfection and its illusive control over my life battered my self-confidence into the ground. Everything I did, or attempted to do, was from a point of searching for acceptance and love. When you feel that love from God and others is predicated on your ability to earn that love and acceptance by the perfection of your deeds, then you have no idea how to be yourself or find who you really are. Every move and decision is based on the need for approval. I was completely imprisoned by my misinformed beliefs, and unfortunately took some dreadful roads in my quest for love. The truth is, there is no perfection within the human effort, only the effort itself.

I moved to St. Louis to attend university and found a house of worship that intrigued me. The minister stood to deliver his sermon and I braced myself for the expected lashing. But instead, this man spoke of the love of God… of the gift purchased for us by Jesus’ death on the cross, how we are no longer subject to the law, as grace took its place at Calvary. He went on to say we would never be perfect, as there was only one perfect sinless lamb offered up for the mistakes of all mankind and it is in Jesus’ perfection alone that our imperfections are forgiven. He spoke of the holiness of the heart, and explained that this is based on relationship with God, not on strict outward appearances. I listened with an intent ear, never having heard such things before and wondering if somehow this grace was enough for a hopeless sinner like me. God is love and all who live in love live in God and God lives in them…Such love has no fear because perfect love expels all fear.

What a life changing revelation. Could it be true? I would never, could never earn my way into Heaven by the perfection of my deeds. Was it really through Christ alone and my faith in Him that I was forgiven and whole to walk in this new life I’d been given? What a freedom that came to my heart through the understanding of forgiveness. I felt like a one hundred pound weight of fear and needless expectation had been lifted from my soul. I could live, and be, and choose for myself how I would express my life before God. And He would direct my path each day. Such freedom was completely foreign to me, but joyously welcome.

This is how my journey began; it is one I live each day with the intimate understanding of His mercies, His power and His presence, all fresh every morning.  And although I continue to struggle and will likely always have some challenge in the area of overcoming my need to make everything around me perfect, still, I am a child of God, unique, gifted and talented in ways that are meant to bring Him glory and honor. He has taught me the true holiness of the heart and my prayer is that I grow in His grace each day and that my experiences will enrich the lives of those around me. I choose to embrace the freedom to live my life in love, to give and receive that love freely, without the needless imprisonment of perfection and the fear of failure.

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