Lean into Grace in 2014: Change the Way We Think About Change

contact Catherine Claire Larson

I don’t know about you, but this time of year stresses me out. We go from bowing our hearts at a manger cradle, embracing family, lavishing gifts on loved ones, and feasting to burying ourselves in guilt, resolving to do better, and flailing. Give me Christmas, please. Give me advent. Give me anything but this New Year’s I-Can-Do-It-If-I-Just-Try-Harder death trap. My throat’s constricting just thinking about it.

Lord knows, I want to do better. I want to be more, and in some ways less. I want that so very much. But I’ve been around this guilt-track one too many times to know that if change is happening in my life, it won’t be happening because I finally willed it enough. Change happens by the grace of God. Repeat: change happens by the grace of God.

I have tried to make change happen in my life through white-knuckling it. I’ve tried to make change happen in other peoples’ lives by loving them into it. I’ve tried to make change happen with schedules, regimens, and to-do lists. It doesn’t work.

Now hear me, I’m not saying we can or should be lazy, flippant, or haphazard in our pursuit of change. I’m not saying that schedules or to-do lists or scales or love or determination may not be advantageous in our pursuit of change. What I am saying is that they will never get you to change without the grace of God at your back.

Dear friend—dear self—please remember, nothing changes unless God fills the sails with the breath of His pleasure.

Do you want to live a life more pleasing to God? Good. Do you want to be more faithful in your time alone with Him? Good. Do you want your words to be full of grace and wisdom when you speak with your children or co-workers or neighbors? Good. Do you want to live a healthier life-style? Good. Do you want to dedicate your time to finally learning to play an instrument or picking up a new language? Good.

But if you have the audacity to think to attempt any of these things in your own strength, for your own purposes, apart from the grace of God, well friend, enjoy the rollercoaster. I’ll see you on the other side. Because when we attempt things, even good things, without even petitioning God about them, something’s bound to go haywire. You may end up rocking that resolution while totally neglecting other important aspects of what God has called you to do. You may flail when you run out of strength and despair of ever changing. Depression may ensue. You may nail the change but become arrogant and suffocating to be around in the process. Or you may, and I hope this is the case, end up on your knees before God asking Him if this change is one He wants for your life and if so if He’d be pleased to strengthen you with whatever it takes to make it.

So, dear ones, let’s just skip the roller-coaster, please. Can we instead both start 2014 off right? Can we start it on our knees? Can we start it by asking God what changes He wants to see in our lives? Would we be willing to listen—truly listen—to His answer? It may not be where we want to put our energies. Can we just go ahead and confess that in ourselves we are not enough to be better, but that we truly and desperately need help to change? Let’s get real; we desperately need help to even truly want to change. That’s better.

So God, here we are, a mess, at your feet, desiring (but not nearly strongly enough), the changes that will bring us more of your abundant life. Here we are, so blind to the changes we need the most. And here we are asking for your grace, leaning into it, falling. By your grace and only if it is for your glory, help us. Change us and empower us to change. Change the way we seek change.

 

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Grace Conditioning: Nurturing Godly Habits in Ourselves and in Our Children

ballet shoesLast spring I got to go see my sweet six year-old niece, Lucia, perform in Cinderella at the Kennedy Center. She was a delightful bumble bee who received spontaneous applause when tossed over the shoulder of one of the adult dancers in a humorous moment where she left the stage kicking her little leotards in a well-practiced protest.

Going to the ballet at the Kennedy Center is not something I get to do often, and so that evening, I soaked in the beauty and the grace of so many well-conditioned dancers doing exactly what they had trained their bodies to do. I lost myself in an enchanting forest scene where snow drifted peacefully to the ground while nymphs and fairies made magic with pirouettes, grand jetés, arabesques and relevés. Through the ballerinas’ constant practice, their muscles obeyed their minds in a way that seems almost unconscious. Grace becomes instinct. (Even off-stage, a ballet dancer can’t help but move gracefully. It is in the tilt of her chin, the line of her spine, the obedience of her shoulders, and the lightness of her step: grace habits.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking of those grace-conditioned dancers as I’ve been reading some of the writings of Charlotte Mason, a British educator, born in the 1840’s, whose life and legacy re-shaped English schools and is today having an impact on countless other families. While Mason has much to say on educational practices as we traditionally think of them, recently what I’ve been soaking in are her thoughts on habit-training.

She writes: “As has been well said, ‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’ And a great function of the educator is to secure that acts shall be so regularly, purposefully, and methodically sown that the child shall reap the habits of the good life, in thinking and doing, with the minimum of conscious effort.” (Vol. 2, p. 124).

While certainly only the Holy Spirit revives and reforms our corrupt hearts and the sin-bent hearts of our children, we can and are instructed to train our children in righteousness. And through constant reinforcement of godly habits, God uses us to shape their characters.

I don’t want children who are merely outwardly conforming to good habits; I want children whose hearts have been transformed such that they crave goodness because God has changed their natural thirsts. But I pray that as I surround them with that which is good and pure and right and train them in habits which reflect those qualities, that I could somehow participate with the Holy Spirit in what God alone can begin and bring to completion: the work of giving them new hearts and minds. If my motions mimic His, if my mothering reflects that which is good, and pure, and true, perhaps somehow in this beautiful mysterious dance of aligning my life and heart with His, He might be gracious enough to choreograph His work of change in their spirits.

How I long and pray that my children—yes, my boys—would be conditioned in grace, would move instinctively through life with the grace of ones whose hearts have learned to bend to God in obedience, whose hands extend in gentle kindness, whose feet leap to help the hurting. How my heart burns to see their lives revolve around their rightful center, the God who is their fixed point in a turning world.

But it begins with grace in my own life. And so I have been asking God to train my heart as I seek to practice the daily conditioning of bending in obedience to my Creator, stretching toward Him in the midst of my heavy days, or holding the pose of patience even when my whole body aches to let go. My habits need constant attention, but I’m more mindful now of letting my ever-gracious instructor condition me in the disciplines of grace that I might in turn live gracefully before my children.

 

Interested in reading more about habit training? Download a free e-book from Simply Charlotte Mason called Smooth and Easy Days. Interested in reading more from me, check out some other recent posts about mothering with grace here: Play with Me Mama: a Lesson in God with Us, Just Another Day Dragon-Slaying: Raising Braveheart, or The Interrupted Life. You can also find my books: Waiting in Wonder: Growing in Faith While You’re Expecting or As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

Going Deeper

Starry Night quote

Summer’s leaves rustled under silent stars as we stepped into the balmy August air. Bonnie and I were laughing. I can’t remember why, but I know my heart was light with that contagious buoyancy of spirit I so often felt in her presence. It was an ordinary Thursday night after Joy Group (a women’s discipleship group we’d been in together for several months) and we chatted for a few minutes under the glare of porch lights before driving home to our separate worlds (her: a professor of English at Patrick Henry College, me: a mother still adjusting to life with two in diapers).

We talked wistfully, wishing we could spend more time together. Bonnie shared with me how much she had enjoyed an accountability group that she’d been a part of in North Carolina and how she’d love to do something like that with me. And of another desire she had to study through a book on systematic theology—“would you want to teach something like that?” she asked. My esteem for my doctorate-bearing friend made the request feel intimidating. I said perhaps we could learn together and I shared another honest desire of my own. I told her how much I’d love to hear her story and get to know her better (after all, we shared a love of so many things: the love of the apt phrase, the lure of the hidden call behind true beauty, and a desire to know more deeply the Author of all that is good and true and beautiful). We didn’t make a plan that night, and how I wished we had. How was I to know that before the last of summer’s leaves had fallen, my sweet friend Bonnie, just forty-four years young, would have drawn her last breath, slipping peacefully home to her Savior in the stillness of a November night?

~*~

At her memorial service, ache knotted itself tightly in my throat as one of her former students read from one of Bonnie’s favorite books, C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces:

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

I rejoiced that Bonnie had gone “home” to be with Jesus, home to the source of the beauty that had captivated her throughout her life on earth. But I couldn’t help feeling sorry that I’d missed out on going deeper with her and growing deeper together with Jesus.

~*~

Before my first son was born, Bonnie brought him a gift. On the outside, in lieu of a bow, she’d attached a sweet little rattle, a frog with a smile so wide it made his lips curl to his eyeballs in a generous half-moon. Rather than the normal shaker, this rattle sounds like the tinkling of distant bells. Lately, my youngest son has grown attached to that rattle. I’ll be washing dishes or folding some laundry and hear those faint bells. Or I’ll be stepping over toys only to find that frog’s silly smiling face underfoot, and somehow I can’t help smiling too. And I find myself thinking about Bonnie and about so many of the interesting people I’ve had the privilege of knowing but not knowing well enough. People like a college professor of mine who rubbed shoulders with some of the most dazzling minds of the Harlem Renaissance and whose own creative genius was readily apparent, or some of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide who shared their stories of unthinkable heroism and mercy with me, or my own dear friend Chuck Colson, who seemed to have some interesting insight on just about any subject. How I would have loved for just a few more hours of conversation with any one of them. (And perhaps that incessant longing for more time is just one more indication that we are made for something beyond time; that we were made for eternity.)

And yet, though I’ve had the privilege of knowing a great many dazzling minds, quite a few hearts that bled with compassion and courage, yet they all pale in comparison to the ONE who beckons me to come and know Him deeper.

There is a mind, so deep, so beautiful, and so full of wisdom that none can fathom it. There is a heart, so pure, so full of goodness and light and mercy, that none could behold it. All the men and women whom I’ve admired in my lifetime for their depth and spiritual beauty, for their compassion, creativity, and courage, they are all mere glimmers of this God, the source of all knowledge and goodness. And this One, this God of the Universe, author of all that can be known, He invites me to know Him better. He whispers to me an invitation to join Him, to look for Him and find Him when I search with all my heart (Jer. 29:13).

I know I will have all eternity to get to know Him (and my dear Bonnie) better, but I don’t want to miss out here. I want to go deeper with Christ. I want to know Him more. I don’t want to put it off until a more convenient time. I’m letting the tinkling of bells be my domestic call to worship, my invitation to say those simple words I said to Bonnie, but this time to my Savior, “I want to know more of your story; I want to get to know you better.” It makes me smile to think that on the other side of the veil, Bonnie is doing the same. She’s wading into beauty, drinking her fill of the depth and wisdom and love of Christ.

P.S. Do you want to dig deeper into the riches of the depth of God’s mind and the beauty of His heart? Here is just a little of what the Scriptures say:

Romans 11:33

Job 11:7

Psalm 36:5-6

Psalm 92:5

Isaiah 28:29

Isaiah 40:28

No one could be more fascinating or captivating. Wouldn’t you like to get to know someone like this more deeply? Have you lost the wonder? What’s holding you back from getting to know Him more?

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