A couple of years ago we took a snapshot of ourselves to a big-box store to have copies made for our annual Christmas letter. The nice photo person said our order entitled us to five photo calendars as a free gift.
A week or so later, when I was stuffing envelopes, and had forgotten all about the free calendars, I got to the bottom of the pile of photos and found our free gift – five copies of a photo of my husband’s face beside the top of my head, attached to a tiny calendar that nobody our age can read. I was stunned at the incompetence of the person who produced this travesty, or who let the machine do it and failed to practice quality control.
It was pretty funny. I am short, but really? They couldn’t fit both of our faces on the calendar? The photo was shared on Facebook, entertaining my friends, and taped to the fridge, engendering much hilarity in the kitchen.
All of us are constantly being offered “free” things, only to discover that our credit card will be charged for more of the free thing, or invited to sit through a mediocre dinner in order to acquire the free thing (we have so far refused to participate in either of these scenarios). Or the thing may actually be free, but it’s a worthless piece of junk (see calendar above).
The only free thing that is truly free to you and me is the incredible gift of God’s grace in Jesus. I detect a yawn, because many of you inhabit the Christian culture that I grew up in and am still part of, and this is old hat. So old, in fact, that some of us may have forgotten, or never truly realized, what this means. It’s the air we breathe, but shallowly, so it never completely fills our lungs.
I grew up in a church culture that put a lot of emphasis on doing the right things in order to receive the gift. It was standard procedure to walk down the aisle during an altar call and pray the prayer. These were signs that you had entered the kingdom. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. I think it’s helpful to have markers that you can point to, a consciousness of your decision to follow Jesus. But it was rather formulaic, and for me led to a legalism that focused more on the outward actions than it did on inward transformation.
Add to this the fact that I’m an oldest child/perfectionist, a rule-follower, prone to anxiety and guilt. I spent a lot of my childhood wondering if I’d done it right, if the prayer was right, if I’d been sincere enough, if I was really in the kingdom, and on and on. I loved church camp as a kid, but I remember one bad thing. One day, as I stood by my bunk contemplating the days’ activities, the adult counselor went around the cabin with a list, asking us if we’d received Christ, and putting a check mark by our names if we said yes (note to camp counselors – this is a terrible idea). I was in a quandary – I had so much doubt, because I was depending on what I’d done or not done to adhere to the formula. But I knew what the right answer was, the one the list was looking for. With my heart pounding, I said yes, rubbing salt into my wound of doubt. And then waited for lightning to strike.
I’m not casting blame here. As I said, I was a super-sensitive kid who grew into a super-sensitive adult, who has slowly learned that God is bigger than my clouded understanding and my personality flaws, and that my salvation depends on Jesus, who really did pay it all. There’s not a checklist of correct procedures to becoming a follower of Jesus; the whole thing depends not on me, but on my response of faith and trust in what Christ has done for me. I bring exactly nothing to the table.
I’m also not saying that we should dispense with markers, but that we shouldn’t make the markers more important than what they represent. I think the problem is that we speak too much of what we have to do to receive the gift of grace, and speak too little of the incredible gift of God. We don’t emphasize enough that there is absolutely nothing we can do to save ourselves, because we are sinful, powerless and weak. Jesus has done it for us. We should make sure we’re not teaching or encouraging subtle forms of self-salvation. We need to wallow in grace, to let it flood our souls, to enjoy being his, to revel in it.
My free calendar has a permanent home on my bulletin board. It still makes me laugh. It also reminds me of the only free gift that is priceless, yet truly free, in Christ alone.