Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the good-enough line

When I was a kid my family attended a Methodist church, but on Wednesday afternoons I went with a friend to a Baptist Bible school. I was ten years old when my friend’s parents, who were in charge of my class, led an object lesson on grace that has bothered, helped and stuck with me through the intervening years.
They drew two lines in the dirt of the parking lot and had us stand behind one. Beyond the other, several feet away, they wrote “Being Good”. They invited us to jump across. I was a long-legged energetic kid and wanted desperately to be good, or good enough. I jumped hard and fell just short. No one else made it either. The teachers asked how we could get across. I suggested being able to touch ground once in the middle, and that was vetoed. I asked if I could try again; they said yes. I fell short again.
Then my friend’s father said that he would carry anyone who asked him across on his back. (He got to walk, not jump.) The other kids started to ask him. I took a running start and jumped again, getting both arms and most of one leg across the Good line, and clutching the dirt on that side as though the gap was a bottomless pit. They said I hadn’t gotten all the way over, it didn’t count. I realized that I was making them uncomfortable; they were some of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and they didn’t like to distress me; but on this point they wouldn’t be budged. Neither would I. Finally they redrew the Good line so that even I could see that I couldn’t jump there.
I gave in and asked my friend’s father to carry me across, apologizing for my size and weight and for the distance he had to go. He said it was fine and set me down on the other side, where they talked to us about Jesus’ unique power to overcome our sins and reconcile us to God, and urged us to ask Jesus into our hearts. I didn’t listen well; I was still resenting the redrawn line. I could have been good enough, should have been good enough, was almost good enough... My friend’s parents saw that I was upset and tried to comfort me, but I wasn’t very receptive.
At first I found the lesson fairly easy to dismiss. I saw the harm done by myself and by others who claimed to be Christian, and I figured asking Jesus for help wasn’t sufficient. I knew people (not including my friend’s parents) who seemed to think that their correct belief freed them from the consequences of sin and therefore from having to attend carefully to how they lived. What I wanted wasn’t so much to be forgiven (though I did sometimes crave that) as to do less harm and more good. And that seemed to require a lot of hard work, a lot of leaping in the dark. I prayed, not to be carried, but to be given enough strength to do what I needed to do.
And, of course, as I grew up I found out over and over that what I could do wasn’t enough. In spite of my best efforts I couldn’t answer most of the urgent needs around me; this was especially hard to accept when I was working with children who were ill-treated. Worse, I couldn’t do away with my own destructive tendencies. I came to a clearer understanding of what it might mean to be carried. I needed to stop pushing desperately to do things just because somebody had to, and also to stop turning away from truths that pained me and comforting myself with daydreams. I needed to slow down and learn to listen to what God was actually calling me to do. I continue to struggle with this, but when I do it well I am aware of being strengthened and guided in the work that is mine, and of being able to hold the work that is not mine in prayer, knowing that it is in God’s hands. I used to look at the hard lives of some of my neighbors or the destruction going on in more distant places and think, God has dropped them; God isn’t taking care of them; therefore I should be. I still look at these things and fall into grief, anger, discouragement, wish that God or someone else would step in and set things right; but I have some more confidence that Christ is still there in the midst of the darkness, suffering with us, offering meaning, companionship, a way forward into Life. And I know, now, that the way into this Life requires leaping and being carried, listening and hard work and acceptance of whatever the results of that work may be, acting and being acted on and through in turn.
As I began to understand that I thought that I had learned the lesson, though it took me more than ten years. But now it comes back to me in a different way as I struggle with anxiety. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in the desperate attempt to convince myself and anyone else who might happen to be watching that I am Good. This makes it very hard for me to see my faults calmly and deal with them honestly. Worse, it keeps me focused on myself in a way that makes it harder for me to pray well, or to truly see the people around me. I’ve had inklings of this for some time; in the parable of the rich young ruler in my Bible there are old double underlines under Jesus’ question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I can’t remember now what I was thinking when I marked the passage. But lately it has been in my mind again, along with the Bible-school lesson, and it seems to point a way forward. The point isn’t for me to be good; the point is for me to be rooted in God’s goodness, and to help to bring it more fully into the world. From this perspective my faults still matter, because they make it harder for me to enjoy or embody God’s goodness; but they don’t threaten the basis of my world. I can bear to look at them long enough to change them instead of hiding from them. I can let myself go and really see the people around me, and really see God.

I don’t know how much of this my Bible-school teachers had in mind. I do know that the lesson means a great deal to me now, but didn’t mean much at all until I had time to live into it—and it has taken me a long time indeed. I need to remember this when I mean to open other people’s minds to the truths that seem important to me.


Gail said...

Joanna, I met you more than 2 years ago at FGC Gathering in Wisc.: we shared a blanket as we watched a puppet-and-drama presentation. I wanted you to know how much I appreciated this post of yours--how it speaks from a place I recognize from the short time I was able to speak with you, and how it feeds me in the sore place of my own life where I, too, want to be seen as "good," even though my life is leading me to understand my goodness is not the truth at all. Thank you for writing so clearly and tenderly from your heart.

Nate LaClaire said...

Thank you for this post, Joanna. It is truly a blessing. I, too, struggle with wanting to see and promote the goodness in myself rather than recognizing that God's goodness is what matters. Your story is a great reminder and encouragement.