Lately I've been noticing an unholy edge to my grief, though I've been struggling to put it into words. There is a fear of engaging with another person's suffering that causes people to confuse grief with holiness, as if the act of suffering and grieving by itself makes you more holy. During a recent chat with a dear friend I realized that over the last year various aspects of my grief have been slipping into mistrust of God's plans for my life. When you grieve the loss of a person, you also grieve the loss of your future together, and that kind of grief doesn't really end. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of grief it can easily slip into one of the many manifestations of faithlessness: self-pity, mistrust, depression, etc.
And yet, the tenderness of God has engulfed me these past couple months, leading me to repentance with overwhelming gentleness. When I have prayed through fear, he says to me, "What do you need that I haven't provided?' When I cry out to him in loneliness, he asks as if hurt, "Have I not been enough?" And when I lie in bed, wasting away in self-pity, he pesters me until I get up and do something useful. During one of our many exchanges recently, I may have actually said something to him out loud to the effect of, "Would you just stop being so right all the time, please?"
This weekend I picked up a little book by Brennan Manning called The Wisdom of Accepted Tenderness. So. very. good.
...tenderness is what happens when you know that you are deeply and sincerely liked by someone. The experience withers hard-heartedness and self-hatred. It opens up the possibility of self-esteem and wholesome self-love. It banishes fear. Defense mechanisms start to fall and the disguise drops. A measure of self confidence is instilled, allowing you to smile at your own frailty. Tenderness encourages you and enables you to make the journey into the interior of yourself (which is the most dangerous journey of all).Lest you think the book is all fluffy stuff about self-esteem, Manning goes on to show how living in the tenderness of God's love is the foundation of holiness, social justice, and radical ministry. To see and love Christ at work in others, we must first see and love Christ at work in our own hearts - this is the kind of tenderness of which he speaks. But how do we begin this journey?
One of life's greatest paradoxes is that it is in the crucible of pain and suffering that we become tender. (Certainly not all pain and suffering. If that were the case, the whole world would be tender, since everyone experiences pain and suffering. To these must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. Together they lead to wisdom and tenderness.)Is it beginning to sound like Brene Brown to anyone else out there? To remain vulnerable in the midst of long suffering disappointment is one of the hardest works of faith I've experienced to date. It's nothing compared to what Christians around the world are experiencing right now, but it is the exercise of faith I have been given at this moment. As I look ahead to another school year that seems impossible to manage, I am afraid of sacrificing vulnerability and tenderness just to survive the disappointments that will inevitably come. Yet I am reminded by Manning that walking this path in tenderness is different:
There is a calm, arcane assurance that the grace for the next step in the Spirit is already there, given. Without fear or apprehension the Christian moves (perhaps stumbles) forward knowing that the next and the next and the next steps will take care of themselves. He doesn't worry about tomorrow or even late this afternoon.... Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence.So let the adventure begin with a step of faith tonight as I go to sleep trusting that the faith for the next and the next and the next steps are already provided.