Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stories that Need to be Told- A grace-filled place

For some reason, this story has been on my mind for weeks now. I suppose I need to write it down, even though it's a story that doesn't make me sound too good. No matter. It's a good story about a good person and a good lesson that I needed to learn.

My Junior year of college, I took a religion course at NC State called Introduction to Christianity. My professor was a woman who looked to be in her early sixties, and I wish so much that I could remember her name. I remember her face and her salt and pepper hair, and the sound of her voice. I remember that she was a good teacher, the kind that made me think, even back then, that I was getting a great education for a steal.

I took her class in the fall. I remember watching the leaves begin to turn on Hillsborough street in late September, and I was filled with excitement. Not just because autumn was coming, but because my college boyfriend- who spent his summers guiding fly fishing trips in Alaska- was coming home soon. We'd dated for years and had plenty of ups and downs, but to this day, I still consider him one of the best friends I've ever had.

My professor wouldn't tell us her own religious background, something I recognized as a clever choice, given her audience- college students who would love to find any excuse to discount their instructor's teaching and blow the class off. She was smart and tough, and spoke accurately and truthfully about the Bible- as much as I could tell, anyway. I had been a Christian for about a year but I knew a good bit about the Bible. I liked her, especially when she debunked the then hot-topic of Mary Magdalene being Jesus' wife- thank you, Dan Brown. (who I greatly respect as a writer, but I think he must have made life hellacious for theologians) She had my respect, but I was young and excited to see my boyfriend, so I admit she didn't have all of my attention.

Though she wouldn't share her religious views with us, she did share a little bit about a personal problem she was going through that semester. Her mother was ill, and as the weeks dragged on, I could see that she was growing more and more weary. She missed class sometimes, and would inform us at our next meeting that her mother's health was digressing quickly. I remember feeling empathy for her, even through my lightning hot excitement in those final weeks of waiting in September and October. While my heart anticipated something good, hers anticipated something tragic, and I felt bad for her- but not bad enough to study as much as I could have.

But for all my anticipation of something sweet, I actually met with something sour in the end. When my boyfriend got home, I was crushed to find out he hadn't been truthful with me about some things. I was devastated- it wasn't the first time. We'd injured each other plenty of times- you do that when you're growing up together like we did, especially when the Lord is not in the right place in your relationship. But even so, this hurt surpassed anything I'd felt up until that point. I felt betrayed and I was distracted beyond reason. Disappointment and confusion enshrouded my mind- keeping anything good or worthwhile at bay for what seemed like weeks. In retrospect, I don't remember how long this lasted, but I remember that during that time, my professor encountered the full brunt of the storm in her life- her mother passed away.

With exams approaching, I had a final paper to turn in for my religion course, and try as I might, I could not stay focused. My emotions seemed to consume me. I gave them the freedom to choke the life out of any effort I put into anything. I let my emotions have a lot of control over things back then- something I'm glad that God has dealt with since then- even though it's been a painful and difficult process in my life. But at that point, I was floundering, and I felt like I had no choice but to tell my professor the truth- sort of.

I've said this before, but I had a root of deceitfulness born into me that nothing could uproot but the power of the blood. I could lie to anyone about anything at any time to try to keep my nose and my name clean. It was scary. Before I became a Christian, lying didn't really phase me. After I became a Christian, lying began to bother me a lot, but I still did it because the truth was terrifying to me. That's another thing God dealt with severely- and now I HATE lies with greater passion than I feared truth. At this point, even though I didn't like lies, I still told them. I was still living in a lot of fear.

So I felt bad about emailing my professor, who I respected and felt sorry for, and telling her a lie. But I did it anyway. I felt like if I told her the truth- that my boyfriend had lied to me and I was grieving over it and couldn't keep myself together- that she would tell me to just suck it up and finish my paper on time. So I beefed the truth up a little bit and told her that I had been engaged and my fiance had broken up with me. I thought the fiance thing made my heartbreak sound more legit. I asked if I could meet with her to discuss an extension for the giant paper that was due any minute. (Served me right, I guess, when my fiance really did break up with me years later and I had to go to work and be a human being no matter what).

We met in her office, and I can't remember much about the room itself, except that the light from her desk lamp was a soft yellow, but that even in the warmth of this hue, there was an almost tangible sadness that seemed to surround us. My professor had a subtle strength about her, but when I was with her alone in her office, I could feel the grief leaking through that shell of strength. She looked at me intently through tired eyes from the other side of her desk while I explained my "predicament." I remember hating the words that I was saying, even though, at the root, there was some truth. I was too heartbroken and lacking in self discipline to finish on time. I needed mercy. But I remember HATING that I had exaggerated the situation to make her feel sorrier for me. As I looked at her, I thought, "I am scum. You deserve better than this. Your mother just died, for goodness sake." I said something that conveyed those feelings to some extent because I distinctly remember saying that I was so sorry to bother her with this after the loss of her mother. But she just looked at me with an excruciatingly honest expression and said, "Hey, loss is loss." She gave me an extension, and I walked out of that office both ashamed and amazed, fully aware that I had just been in a place absolutely overflowing with both sadness and grace.

Years later, I repented of my habitual lying. Afterward, I went back to some of the people I lied to and told them the truth about things. And if I could find this professor, I would do the same. I've tried. I can't find her. So maybe that's why I feel like I need to tell her story. Because she so beautifully embodied Christ-like grace to me. At a time when she could have easily given in to her own sadness and no one would have thought the less of her, she tenderly and quickly extended mercy without question- when I most certainly did not deserve it. "Loss is loss." I will never forget those words.

I've been thinking about this story this afternoon, and reflecting on the impact it had- she had- on my life. Because I didn't deserve grace. I was an emotional wreck, I lacked discipline, I was a liar, and thinking back on it, it was profoundly disrespectful to lie to her, especially in her time of grief. But she gave it so freely, without question or requirement. And her grace made me hate the bad things I was guilty of, and desire to become better.

This past year, I was in emotional pain and I was not lying about it. I went to someone with that pain and rather than meeting grace, I was told that I was "overly sensitive." That response, which seemed so void of grace, caused me to grow angry and I wrestled with greater sin because of it. When I consider these two experiences, I believe they illustrate an important principle: When we enter a grace-filled place, the blessings we receive are more likely to cause us to mourn for our sins and desire greater good. But when we encounter a place where grace is absent, fear takes over and all other forms of sin are encouraged to grow.

At the end of the semester, my professor told her students her denominational affiliation and position in ministry. I think, had she told me at the beginning of the semester, I would have discounted her in my arrogant foolishness. But in December I knew, without doubt, that this woman, regardless of her position and/or denomination, was most definitely a minister of God's grace. And I will always consider that lamp-lit office of hers, one of the saddest and most beautiful grace-filled places I have ever been.

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