Today I was thinking about grace. Grace sounds so nice. It brings images to mind like a graceful flower or a swan. Beautiful, peaceful, gentle, natural.
In the dictionary, I found some interesting definitions here. Grace is a deep word. I’ve heard it defined as unmerited favor. The word can be what a king does when he visits a peasant. It can mean approval, favor, mercy, or pardon. It can mean “sense of propriety or right,” which seems to contradict some of the other definitions. Our Sunday school teacher in Spokane keeps saying that grace is scandelous. It doesn’t seem right. It’s unnatural.
In my observation, grace is hard. It’s costly and active. It demands tremendous self-sacrifice to bestow unmerited favor. It’s unfair.
This got me thinking about my experience with grace, especially as it relates to conflict. When my siblings and I were kids, we were great at getting underneath one another’s skin. Allison and I are the closest in age, and had the most run-ins. She was always a lot cooler than me and although 13 months younger she was always socially a step ahead. I remember several instances when it went like this:
She did something that hurt my feelings.
I could have chosen, at this point, to respond with grace.
However, I responded naturally, and got angry. Acting on that anger, my fists started flying. I was always a lot bigger and was also a good fighter, so the physical odds were decidedly in my favor.
The circumstances, however, were not. The one who gets in trouble when a fight starts is almost always the big one who is punching, no matter what the little one did to deserve it.
I have a vague memory of my mom making me apologize while I was still seeing red. Imagine her holding me back so I couldn’t continue the physical onslaught.
Mom: “Laura, apologize to your sister.”
Laura (spitting the words): “I’m sorry.”
Allison: “Mom, she didn’t mean it!”
Mom: “Laura, you know how we do this in our family. Look her in the EYES, say you’re sorry, and ask her to forgive you.”
OH the pain of that moment! Trying to make myself apologize was swimming against the current of every emotion in me. Sure, I knew I shouldn’t have been beating my sister up. But from my perspective, she totally deserved it! I had reacted in the only way I knew I could win. In my eyes, I was justified.
If I apologize, doesn’t she get off scot-free for what she did to me? Worse, to ask for forgiveness was to ask her to be gracious to me. Maybe she would see that as weakness and use it against me. Still, I knew I wasn’t going to get out of the situation until I did an unnatural thing: apologize.
Breathe. Stop looking at your feet. Just get it over with.
Laura (pushing out the words while trying to make eye contact with her smug opponent): “I’m sorry. (Long pause, breathe, breathe, breathe.) Will you forgive me?”
Mom: “Allison, tell her you forgive her.”
Allison (reluctantly, and looking a little less smug): “I forgive you.”
Although somewhat forced, she did grant me favor with those words.
In that feeling of swimming upstream against my emotions, I was learning some big lessons. I felt I had the right to make her pay. She hurt me, and how else could I convey how hurt I was other than to show her what hurt feels like? Still, I wasn’t right to make her pay. In hindsight here is no way I could have punished her fairly. You may think that my reaction was disproportionate to her crime. But it certainly wasn’t to me!
The Bible has a lot of unnatural commands regarding dealing with conflict. This one comes to mind today:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Allison is far from evil and neither is she my enemy. But what if I had in mind that I would fight with kindness, giving her grace when she offended me? It would have been a lot less painful for me, for starters. I should have done that unnatural thing then, and I should do it more often now.
I am on the MARTA in Atlanta. I have a suitcase and a backpack, and when I got on, the train was mostly full and there were people standing. I walked past them and sat in an empty seat on the isle, next to a well dressed white guy about my age. He looked safe, and in my mind I was leaving the two empty seats in front of us open for someone else instead of taking both with myself and my stuff. As the train departed, no one sat there.
At the next stop, the guy next to me got up and left the train. A good-looking black guy looked at me and I wondered what he was thinking. Suddenly I noticed that there were no other white people in my line of sight. I turned around and there were no other white people on the train at all, except one man sitting on the other side of the isle from me.
I sat next to the only two white people on the train. I hadn’t even realized it.
Then I started wondering: did I make that decision subconsciously, or was it a legitimate coincidence? I certainly didn’t mean to sit next to the only white people. If I had realized it, I would have chosen NOT to sit next to the only white people. I couldn’t even believe it.
Some of my very favorite, closest friends are African or of African descent, and I know what my decision looked like, what it said to the others on the train. I confirmed a stereotype in a small, subtle way… that white people are afraid of or do not like black people.
Whether or not this stereotype is often true is not the point. There is plenty of evidence to suggest it. Hanging out with close African American friends when I lived in Atlanta years ago I learned this first-hand. I want to be someone who is intentional about changing the stereotype, and here I am confirming it in my own little way. I am neither the first nor the only one to notice my choice of seat.
Although I didn’t make my seating choice intentionally, I’m sorry I made the choice I did at all. If given the same opportunity again, I plan to choose a different seat. And I pray that the next white person who gets on a train with the same passengers will make a different choice as well.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
Praise God that since Martin Luther King, Jr. said those words transition has continued to occur. But it is not done yet. Lord let me be a continuing part of the solution, not a perpetrator of the problem — even through ignorance or being oblivious.
Here’s the promised Part 2 of the things I’ll miss…
I really like spending time with people who are from different places, and the reality of the culture of the Land is that people are from everywhere, or from there and have lived elsewhere at one time or another. It’s fun to meet people all the time from so many places, which helps me to constantly think about my cultural assumptions, leading me to learning opportunities about myself and others.
I really missed my car. I mean really, freedom of movement is one of my favorite things and highest personal values. But I really enjoy walking as well and often took the opportunity for the hour-long walk home from work. I know that with the distances in the US and fast-paced lifestyles it just isn’t as possible to be a full-time pedestrian. I’ll try to keep walking when it makes sense though.
Pace of Life… Work/Life Balance
This is one of the things that I think I learned most about while overseas — in England and then even more in Palestine and Israel. I’ll note here that I think we are crazy in our expectations for ourselves and others in American culture. This is from personal experience, but I think it is a cultural reality for most middle-class Americans. And I’ll write a full post about this soon.
Now that I’m home with some time on my hands, I’m looking forward to getting caught up on the last few things I wanted to write from Palestine and Israel. I’ll continue to share some more thoughts in the coming weeks/months as I reflect.
These are some of the things I wrote down as I anticipated leaving which I knew I would miss about life in the Land. Since I want to keep it short, I’ll just put the first two today, and then I’ll share a few more tomorrow.
The challenge of faith… needing to be so intentional… needing to rely so much on Jesus!
For me, it was spiritually very challenging in Israel and Palestine. Because there are so many strong opinions everywhere, I felt very guarded for much of my time there to share faith related stuff. This was silly, but still real. I also struggled to see so much religiously-based conflict everywhere. At first, I almost didn’t want to be labeled as a person of faith. Later, though, I started thinking about Jesus, and came back to understanding, with new enthusiasm, that he didn’t like religiousness either. I remembered how unbelievably hard and how opposite of human tendencies his commands are, and came back to the belief that His way is the only way. We must be humble to the point of death (Phil. 2), courageous in reconciliation, bold in faith, and committed to trusting Him, not ourselves, for the power to act in accordance with His will and for the results. In some ways, although learning these things can be incredibly exhausting, the battle can be more meaningful than the sometimes artificially easy way it can be for me to be “faithful” at home. (Please ask me if this doesn’t make sense to you, I’d love to discuss!)
I was so blessed with wonderful friends in the Land. It’s amazing how people can become like family — trusting and taking care of each other in such a short time. I will truly miss my friends and am thankful that I really expect to spend significant time with many of them in the years to come. Some friendships are like that… you strongly suspect that they aren’t just for one season.
Real, Yummy Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and vegetables in season, for great prices. Tomatoes that are really red. Apples that are normal sizes and flavorful, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, dates, orange juice squeezed in front of you. Amazing, healthy, affordable, always available. Heavenly!
“I love this camp,” a pre-teen girl told me as we played in the pool, “I love everything it stands for and everything it’s about, and it’s so fun!”
This attitude was echoed throughout Musalaha’s Israeli-Palestinian summer camp by the seventy Palestinian and Israeli believing children and both local and foreign leaders.
For me, after six months in the Land, this camp gave me real hope
like nothing else I have experienced. There was hope in the Bible studies, in the competitions, in the craziness and laughter, and in the worship. There was hope as the children were creative with their crafts and reckless in their play. There was hope as they were just being girls and boys – having fun, making friends, getting a break from the pressures of their everyday environment.
The fifty leaders arrived on Saturday afternoon to begin a run-through of the camp activities. We were quite a mix
– the Musalaha leadership team, Israeli and Palestinian young teens who were junior counselors, Palestinian and Israeli college-aged counselors, and an American team visiting the country to serve us and the children. Over the course of the two days of preparation we got to know each other, and when the children arrived on Monday, we were ready!
When they arrived, many of the children found friends they had met at last year’s camp. A group of two Palestinian and three Israeli girls negotiated to be in the same room. Upon receiving permission, they pulled five bunks together to make one huge bed where they could sleep together.
During my time here, I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying who is on which side
– quickly profiling everyone I meet. It’s usually unconscious, automatic, and often seems necessary. When I get on a bus, I need to remember what kind of bus it is so I know if I should greet and thank the driver in Hebrew or Arabic. When I see a group, I notice which side they are from. When I talk to people, I want to know where their sympathies lie so I don’t say something terribly offensive.
At the camp I realized that I wasn’t noticing who is Israeli and who is Palestinian. I saw my brothers and sisters from both sides of the conflict demonstrate a love of Christ and each other above their love of sticking with their side. Leaders cared for kids, loving and instructing them regardless of where they are from. We were all there as believers in Jesus, and as should more often be the case, during camp no other identity really mattered.
One day after craft time, a Palestinian boy from the West Bank proudly pulled me aside to show me his pencil case. On it, he had painted an Israeli flag. I am not sure how his parents will feel about it, but it showed me how much more simple this situation is for the children. He loved his new friends and leaders and therefore had fond feelings about the place they are from.
As my coworker Tamara and I reflected on the camp, she said, “Innocence breaks down all this hatred that we have around us. You love the good things that you see in the other side. Like Jesus said, we should be little children.”
The reality is that the conflict will probably get harder for these dear young ones as they get older. They will be pulled and they will likely have experiences that will confirm what their communities teach about the other. The conflict is real and they will likely come face to face with it before long.
But that thought is followed by remembering what I saw in the young adults who helped to lead the camp, many of whom have been raised as a part of Musalaha. They are
pulled, but they do not forget their friends. For them, the “enemy” will never be faceless, inhuman, or distant. For them, the situation will never be easy or black and white. That is good. With open eyes they can help bring change. They are the hope.
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 18:1-3