As a child, I used to spend hours coloring paper doilies. I’d click my Lion King cassette into the tape player and line my markers up, single-file. I could sit like this for hours and color for a whole afternoon, filling in the spokes of those doily wheels with the shades of the Crayola rainbow. Beaming, I’d present the finished work to my parents, who would marvel over my creations and hang them on the wall.
I’m thankful to say I never had to worry about how they would react. I never had to worry they’d say it was a stupid way to spend my time, or that the doilies weren’t good enough for our refrigerator. I wasn’t afraid they would reject my gift – they were my parents after all, and they’d love whatever I gave them. It was my offering, and they accepted it.
It’s funny that I felt so confident expressing my love to my parents. When I later developed into a devout Calvinist, I became a big believer in TULIP and resonated in particular with the concept of total depravity. The idea was that I was so hopeless on my own that I needed God to swoop in and carry me, kicking and screaming, to the foot of the cross. After that, any good things that came out of my life were, apparently, all because of Christ and not any action on my part.
For a myriad of reasons, I’ve since distanced myself from my Calvinist upbringing. I’m Catholic now, and if there’s one difference in my faith, it’s how I see myself in relation to God. I still believe it’s God’s grace, not my own works, that have saved me. I still believe that ignoring Christ’s call and instead living only for my own desires would be an enormous mistake, to put it mildly.
The fundamentals of my beliefs are all the same. But here’s the big change: instead of seeing myself as a worthless sinner haunted by my past and future failures – which I tended to do in my early years – I now see myself as infinitely valuable. The world and I are extravagantly loved by God. And therefore I imagine that God doesn’t see our devotions and offerings as disfigured by our “total depravity.” We’re made in his image and glorify him by our mere existence. And when we love him, we glorify him even more.
A declaration of the Vatican described it this way:
“The good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace. But at the same time, and without in any way diminishing the totally divine initiative, they are also the fruit of man, justified and interiorly transformed.”
If you’re skeptical, think for a moment of the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume. The disciples were shocked, criticizing her for her wasteful actions. This expensive perfume could have been sold, they say. But Jesus didn’t rebuke the woman. He saw the extravagant ritual for what it was – an act of love, a “beautiful thing.” Certainly God’s grace working in her life prompted her to honor the Lord like this. But she was also a woman in love, interiorly transformed and willing to do something profligate. And the fragrance of her devotion, we are told, filled the entire house.
Many denominations in the Protestant church, as well as many parishes in the Catholic Church too, for that matter, have long started moving away from language that focuses on how terrible we are and how imperfect our worship is. I think this a step in the right direction. By dwelling too much on our sinful habits instead of honoring God with the incredible lives given to us, we’re missing out on a host of opportunities.
The way I see it, God loves our limp, bleeding paper doilies. He takes them in his hand and examines them. He doesn’t criticize our offerings and our attempts to love him, and so we don’t need to dwell on how unworthy they are, either. Because the longer and more deeply we love him, the more intricate and the more gorgeous our lives will become. Our love won’t be confined to eight shades of Crayola, but to colors even the naked eye can’t see.
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in Prague, Czech Republic. You can find more of her writing on her blog The Prague BLOG or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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