Grace to Those Who Hear

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital Portfolio© 2016 Lynn Abbott

I learned some of life’s greatest and most difficult lessons on an Elementary School playground.

If I’m completely honest, I gotta admit that children are not as innocent as we’d like to believe.  And on the playground, they frequently engage in cruelty.

In kindergarten, bullies targeted me.  I dunno.  My neighbor may have instigated it.  Like Lucy of Peanuts fame, she enjoyed pushing me around.  Perhaps, the others simply followed suit.

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioAlthough I don’t recall who began the bullying, I do remember the outcome.  One day,  a gang of lil’ tikes surrounded me with wagons and tricycles.  They had cornered me behind the sports equipment shed.

On that back forty, a struggle for power and social position played itself out.  As the only girl invited to the most popular boy’s Birthday party, I had incurred the wrath of a jealous few.  That day, they attempted to run over tiny, four-year-old me.

Fortunately for me, my kindergarten teacher broke the mob up.

She also called my mother later that day.  Apparently, my friend Donna had been previously attacked.  Apparently, because she and I were the youngest and smallest in the class, we were deemed easy playground prey.

My mother, ever wise, chose to re-enroll me in kindergarten the following year.  Academics had nothing to do with her choice.  She simply wished to give me a fighting chance on that tough suburban school playground.

It helped.  Children no longer physically intimidated me.  But we all know that bullies have more tools than physical in their arsenal.

Although we countered elementary school name-calling with the lie, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” we still licked our emotional wounds.

After all, any child with sense knows that words signal malicious intent.  So most of us did our best to deflect the insults that daily swirled about us during recess.

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioOne-upmanship regularly made an appearance in the back quarter of the schoolyard. Lines were drawn; dares made. Like blooms vying for significance and honor behind the barn, each competed for his or her day in the sun.

Attempting to survive in that competitive world, I spent many recesses playing basketball with Donna.  I avoided the bullies’ territory.

I kept my mouth shut in class.  And I breathed a sigh of relief when my teacher’s seating chart put distance between myself and the socially ambitious.

But in third grade, during physical education, a girl who occupied a higher rung on the social ladder stood in line just behind me.  Our teacher had endorsed the questionable practice of allowing team leaders to choose their dodge ball teams.

“You’ll be the last one chosen,” the popular girl taunted.  “We don’t like you.  You’re no good.”

I hurt inside.  But that doesn’t excuse what I said in reply:  “Claudia is worse at dodge ball than I am.  I won’t be the last one chosen.”

Sadly, I failed to notice that Claudia stood just two students ahead of me in line.

She pivoted.  Nausea washed over me.

“Shut up,” she retorted. “You’re too stupid and uncoordinated to get picked for any team.”

I stared.  Struck dumb, as it were.

I wanted to hide, but not because she had spoken abruptly.  No, I knew I deserved her every word.

My own cruel words haunted me.

Indeed, to this day,  I am ashamed of the way I had spoken.

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioSure, I had attempted to protect and buoy myself. But in the process, I stepped on someone else.

Undoubtedly,  I learned an important lesson about the power of words.  While I cannot remember the name of the girl who insulted me,  I have never forgotten Claudia.

If I could meet her today, I would apologize. She probably has long since forgiven and even forgotten.  But for me, that experience was life-changing.

Perhaps, this explains the later impact of Paul’s words upon my life,  “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear,” (Ephesians 4:29).

Many of us recite the verses that follow… “Be kind one to another…”  Myself included.  But Paul intended us to read it as a whole, one thought connected to the other.  Kindness is expressed both in word and deed.

And don’t we all wish for a reputation for speaking words of healing rather than hurt?  It’s true. We soak up words of Grace. We aspire to inspire.

Yet, out on life’s “playground,”  giving grace to those who hear becomes difficult to practice.   Indeed, that same “playground” teaches that a little sarcasm, a little pointed complaint, a dash of subtle self-promotion at the expense of others is necessary for our social and emotional survival.

Experience seems to support such a theory.  If you land on the bottom of the playground pile, you’re likely to get crushed.  And those longing for significance or value in the schoolyard invariably have to fight for it.

But God turns worldly wisdom on its head.  Our Sovereign-Shepherd–God incarnate–taught a revolutionary approach to relationships.

You may recall the parable, one of Christ’s many that runs contrary to worldly teaching.  Jesus’ story has been called “The Parable of the Guests.”  And in fact, Jesus taught the tale in response to the real life jockeying that He observed.

In chapter fourteen of his gospel, Luke writes,”And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out places of honor at the table…”

Uh, huh.  The party, the social event of the season, the water cooler in the workplace, family or school reunions, and yes, even, the church sanctuary… all occasionally resemble the elementary school playground.

Adults have merely learned to finesse their social-climbing.  Frequently, the jockeying exhibits itself in ambitious yet “unwholesome words.”  When you feel threatened, it’s easy to slip into gossip, slander, innuendo, back-handed compliments and “put-downs.”

Much of the time, such remarks stem from the desire to feel significant.  We all long to sit in a place of honor.  At eight, I did not intend to hurt Claudia.  I only wished to raise myself in the estimation of one who sought to put me down. I wanted a seat at the table.

But as is so often the case, such attempts fail miserably.

Jesus explains, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him [the host], and he who invited you both shall come and say to you ‘Give place to this man’, and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place,” (Luke 14:8-9).

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioChrist’s words definitely run contrary to playground principles.  James minces no words when he describes those who clamor for the top: “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above… For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing,” (James 3:15-16).

So how come playground politics often appear successful?  What’s up with that?

Sometimes, you just wanna ask with the Psalmist, “How long shall the wicked, O LORD, How long shall the wicked exult?  They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; All who do wickedness vaunt themselves.  They crush Thy people, O LORD…” (Psalm 94:3-5a).

Yup. The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful, but for many, its teaching seems a bit impractical. If we allow others to go “first,” won’t we get trampled on?

At first glance, it certainly seems that God’s way relegates us to the bottom of the heap.  Sometimes, I balk.

Rest assured that our Savior understands how you and I feel, (Hebrews 4:15).  In fact, He’s been there…in a Garden called Gethsemane. He doesn’t ask us to travel a path that He wasn’t willing to walk.

One of my favorite chapters among the New Testament epistles sums it up well.  In Philippians 2:5-7, Paul describes our Savior’s selfless sacrifice: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself taking the form of a bond-servant…”

Christ did not grasp for the glory and honor that He obviously deserved as God.  Instead, He served.  He even sacrificed His life for us that we might be lifted… found when we were lost.

He took the lowest place at the table–born in a stable, in poverty.  Matthew records that during Christ’s adult ministry that the Son of Man had “nowhere to lay His head,” (Matthew 8:20).

Christ–the King of Glory, Almighty God–did not follow schoolyard wisdom.    He bucked the system and He calls His followers to do the same: “If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it,” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Yes, He calls us to gritty grace.  But He adds a tremendous promise.

Although those who scramble and war their way to the top appear successful, ultimately our Creator-Host determines who sits in the highest place.  Paul tells us that Christ  emptied Himself, but that as a result, He has been exalted and given the name which is above every name, (Philippians 2:9).

That’s right. Our Savior knows both the cost and the reward.  We can trust Him when He says, “…whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.”

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioThat long ago day on the playground, I attempted to “save my life.”  As a result, my words did not edify, or as Webster’s defines it, “to lift up.”  Instead, I hurt and tore another child down in order to promote and protect myself.  My words that day reflected worldly wisdom.

But Grace teaches me another way.

Thus, whenever I catch myself  defending myself at the expense of another, I have to ask, “Do I really believe what my Savior taught?”

A tough question, you bet.

I believe, though, the question runs deeper than simple external adherence to Christ’s teaching.

Christ asks me to trust Him to fulfill His great purpose for my life.  When I humbly “look out for the interests of others,” I place my trust in Him to fill my needs.  In Him, my significance and honor rest.

God has promised every spiritual blessing for those who truly follow Him.  While sometimes it seems the world’s way wins, ultimately, our Sovereign-Shepherd rules.

If you and I truly believe that, we can say with David, “For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness.  For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly,” (Psalm 84:10-11).

Late Afternoon at the Farm, Rockbridge County_14x18Oil_LynnAbbott_for Digital PortfolioGod promises a place in the “sun” as well as protection.  He is “a sun and shield” for those who love Him.

And He has promised that the last will become first, (Matthew 20:27).

Knowing and trusting Him, then, enables you and me to take the servant’s place.  Indeed, trusting the “Host” to lead us to a place of honor and significance, we freely build others up rather than put them down.

A heart of Grace replaces selfish ambition.

And that heart speaks what is “good for edification [process of uplifting] according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear,” (Ephesians 4:29).

“But Thou, O LORD, art a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head,” ~Psalm 3:3

“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge that I may tell all of Thy works,” ~Psalm 73:28