faith&foolishness

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A Vision of Divine Generosity

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 16, 2009

I fear that much of our zeal has become misdirected; what began as a desire for other believers to know God has become an obsession with recreating other disciples in our own image — the self-made Christian. “If only I can build that ladder to heaven with my own two hands,” we think, “then I will be able to reach God.” Or, as have heard preached: “A relationship with God is like an empty box, you only get out what you put in to it.”

Oh, but I’m happy to remind you that the preacher was mistaken, and that we have been mistaken, and that the Good Book never mentions empty boxes, but it does talk about an empty tomb, and cups so full they runneth over.

That is the vision of divine generosity that took hold of me while I was an undergrad, and that continues to direct both my faith and my art-making.

It happened on a balmy evening in the summer of ’03. I had installed myself on a pile of rotting railroad ties just outside of a little cemetery, where I batted at mosquitoes and tried to summon the strength to return to my studio and correct my latest round of mistakes. A train whistled in the distance — a long, lonely cry that seemed to echo my own mournful defeat. I felt thoroughly empty, consumed from within by my own failure and unworthiness.

But I’d seen this vibrant hillside from the open door of my basement studio, glowing emerald in the the evening sunlight, with shadows like midnight stretching from below the low-hanging trees. It looked like a place of rest, and I thought perhaps I might find some small peace among the silent stones of those who dreamt within the earth. And so I went, and I sat. I was empty. But here, even the air was full, with moisture and the earthy scents of summer; ripening wheat, blossoming dandelion and magnolia, all manner of living things sprouting upwards from fertile soil. And peace fell like rain on my tired spirit.

I sat, unmoving, until it was fully dark, amazed at this silent field of modest graves bearing witness to the graciousness of a loving God. Like that summer night, the divine richness is so great that God asks nothing in return — only that we come and drink our fill of all that is offered to us. We come absolutely empty, ringing horribly with our own hollowness. We have nothing to bring. But all the same, God gives, and we go away filled to overflowing.

If we then worship, it is only because we have been loved by the God who is love. If we then go to serve others, it is only because we already been served by the greatest Servant. The only empty box is the one we bring to be filled. The only thing asked of us is that we come.

In due time, the heavenly ladder will be provided.

[This post is adapted from a piece I originally wrote in January, 2005.]

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2 Responses to “A Vision of Divine Generosity”

  1. Misti said

    I’m in agreement with you on this one, for sure. Not only do we need to lift up our empty cup to be filled, but I find that if I try to fill my own, it will drain out through the gaping holes in the sides.

    I think your preacher of the unfortunate box illustration was trying to make a point about discipline, perhaps, or good works. While there’s definitely a place for works in the Christian life, they can’t take the place of grace, nor do we earn grace by works. One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (NKJV) The second half of the verse, in particular, I find meaningful: God has prepared the way for me, and all I have to do is walk in it — with my eyes open, yes, with a willing spirit, yes, and with my empty cup held up to be filled. The emphasis is not on me, it’s on Him, and any good works that I do are the ones set before me by the only one who can see what’s on the road ahead of me. I think your phrase “divine generosity” (which I like very much) applies here, too.

  2. Sarah Jane said

    Your vision of a way that’s already prepared and our task is simply to faithfully follow it reminds me so much of the labyrinth — all those times the path curves around and folds back on itself, but never a dead end. Does the Orthodox church use labyrinths at all?

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