I am a really big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I put a lot of thought into them and I try my absolute hardest to stick to them throughout the year. Some will inevitably fall to the wayside, like trying to quit biting my fingernails. And some will be wildly successful, like developing a taste for wine. At the beginning of 2016 I set the bar the highest I had ever set it for myself with a resolution: I resolved to learn to be more graceful. This resolution had nothing to do with learning how to move my arms and legs together in a pleasant, rhythmic way…which will never happen…and had everything to do with the amount of grace that resided in my heart…or lack thereof.
I have many good qualities. I am kind. I am loyal. I am funny. But I am not filled with grace. My knee jerk reaction to being slighted or wronged or watching someone else be slighted or wronged, is whatever the exact opposite of grace would be. I am just and fair but I do not tolerate any behavior I deem to be “wrong”. I don’t tolerate it in myself and I sure as heck don’t tolerate it well in others.
And at the beginning of 2016 I began to realize that this lack of grace was not only losing me friendships and making me miserable, but it just wasn’t the way that Jesus created me to be. Being so concerned with the black and the white of the world and making sure that the world constantly knew its light side from its dark side was exhausting and depressing. So I decided to spend 2016 studying and tackling this grace thing everyone was so excited about all the time.
It went well for a while. I stopped yelling at people in traffic as much. I stopped constantly judging people in my head. I forgave a little easier and I tried really hard to leave grudges behind…which was so very difficult for my incessantly score keeping brain. And for a few months I felt pretty good about myself. “Maybe this grace thing isn’t so complicated after all”, I thought.
And then I kind of stopped paying attention to it. I slipped back into some old habits. I started tallying missteps and sins again. I grew harder on myself and on those that I loved the most. And a few weeks ago, as I started dreaming up resolutions for 2017, I was shocked to realize it had been a while since I had thought about my resolution to become more graceful this year. I was a little embarrassed and ashamed. And then I decided that I had simply set the bar too high this year…much like the year with the no nail biting vow…and I just needed to keep these resolutions a little more manageable in the future.
And then recently, in the last dredges of 2016, I was forced to come face to face with grace. The choice before me was obvious: Show some grace and maybe save a relationship. Or continue to live a life of judgement and grudges and possibly lose someone close to me forever. I would like to say that I immediately knew which decision to make, that I didn’t think twice before fully throwing myself into the arms of grace. But I didn’t. I am fortunate to have some very special people in my life, though. And they reminded me of the journey God has taken me on this year. They reminded me of my resolution and of the stakes at hand. And they encouraged me to choose grace.
So I did. And grace knocked me down hard…in the way that I now know only God’s grace can. I chose grace. I saved the relationship. I mended a fence. And it hurt like hell to do it.
I don’t know why I thought extending grace wouldn’t hurt. Obviously when we look at the ultimate act of grace and sacrifice, we see some powerful emotional and even physical pain be endured. But for whatever reason I had in my head that showing grace to someone would be like executing the biggest, brightest, bubbliest Care Bear Stare ever. I had envisioned being filled with warmth and maybe even getting that weird light that that Touched By an Angel character always had when she would announce in her Irish lilt that she was an angel, sent by God. I expected grace to feel warm and fuzzy. And I know it does…for the one receiving it. (At least that has been my experience when I have undeservedly been given grace by others.) But recently I learned that to be the one extending it brings few warms and fuzzies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am so ecstatic to have chosen grace this time around! It was the right decision and I have already seen so many benefits in my life from having chosen grace. But I was surprised to feel pain and sadness in the midst of the few warm and fuzzies.
And this reminded me of a story. Of course it’s from The Chronicles of Narnia and of course it’s found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because it is the BEST of the seven. All of you Last Battle and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe people, get out of town! All pale in comparison to the adventures of a great Narnian ship.
Now that that is out of the way, here’s the story: One of the main characters of the book is named Eustace Scrubb. He’s as awful as his name sounds. He’s whiny and mean and complains a whole lot. In this book we meet him on his first journey from our world to Narnia and he is not happy about it. He ends up accidentally becoming a dragon in the middle of the book, which he totally and completely deserves and which ultimately leads to his redemption. In the weeks he is stuck being a dragon he begins to realize that he was a terrible human being. He starts to see how selfish and awful and mean he is and he starts to feel truly bad for being so terrible. He starts to make amends to his shipmates, in the best way a dragon can, and slowly you begin to love Eustace the Dragon.
One night when everyone else is sleeping and Eustace the Dragon is extra uncomfortable in his dragon skin, he decides to fly around the island that the ship has docked near. He eventually lands near a cave and without even thinking much about it, he begins to absentmindedly scratch his skin. And then he starts to see his skin peel off. And then he realizes that dragons are reptiles and reptiles shed their skin, so he begins to scratch deeper and harder and layer after layer of his dragon skin comes peeling off.
After a few layers of skin have been shed and he’s feeling pretty accomplished and excited, Eustace suddenly realizes that he is not alone. A huge lion has entered the cave and even though Eustace is a pretty big dragon at the time, this lion has him intimidated. The lion speaks and identifies himself as Aslan, the Jesus like character in the books. The lion asks Eustace if he can help him shed his skins. Eustace looks at the lion’s giant claws and is both terrified and relieved that Aslan wants to help him. He eventually agrees to let Aslan have a whack at it and in one big swipe of his paws, Aslan rips off every single layer of Eustace’s dragony skin.
And it hurt. Bad. It was excruciating! Even now as I recount this story, I feel my own skin kind of tingle and shudder at the thought, like when you accidentally peel a sunburn before it’s ready, of which I have eons of experience. But when the pain subsided, Eustace was a boy again! Eustace could have carefully peeled each and every layer of dragon skin that he could handle off of his body and he still would have never found the final layer. But Aslan ripped right to the core, in a blindingly painful moment, and found the real Eustace.
Here’s where my story and Eustace’s come together. All year long I have been peeling away at the skins I had grown to hide grace. I would make these little steps towards grace. Stop rolling my eyes at that behavior, check! Be more patient and understanding with Levi, check! Don’t flick off that guy who just cut me off in traffic, check! I was peeling the layers off. One at a time. And frankly, getting nowhere.
And then, God asked me if He could help. And when I finally said yes, He ripped the rest of those layers off so quickly and so assuredly that it hurt like hell. It still stings a little bit, to be honest. But when I finally acknowledged that I was getting nowhere on my own and chose to look for and extend grace in an impossibly difficult situation, the love of Jesus ripped through my layers of justice and judgement and revealed the grace that can only be seen when we choose it, no matter the cost to ourselves. I couldn’t have faced that difficult situation on my own. In fact, I know what choice I would have made if left to my own devices. Only the grace of Jesus resurrected what was left for dead and brought me back to life with it.
Grace carried me through. And it wasn’t all warm and fuzzies but it was worth the pain to get to it. It took me almost the entire year to find the grace that had been hiding. And I am not perfect. I will lose it again. Just like Eustace Scrubb still had grumpy days even after his dragon life was behind him. But I know how to find it now. And I know how to ask for it. And I have to believe that each time it gets a little easier and that the joy of grace always comes with the morning. My dragon skin has been shed and the rawness is healing and all is grace.