It was not stuffy or dark, just lonely.
While all the other team members of my group got to serve the Filipino people, I was assigned the "Prayer Closet" hour.
This was not because folks didn't like me. It was because we were on rotations that had someone scheduled to pray during every hour of the working day.
So, for the entire summer of steep learning curves, I learned new terminology like "prayer closet" and "hedge of protection." I remember praying by name for those on my team, for my family and friends back in the States. If I was feeling extra diligent, I did so on my knees. And if it hurt my knees, even better. After all that Jesus did for me, I could use a little "fellowship of His sufferings" (a misinterpretation of Philippians 3:10).
Over the years, I've remembered that moment. It seemed like the right thing to do. But I'm convinced now that it was not.
The one phrase Jesus repeatedly threw at the hypocrites of His day - and ours - resounds in my ears: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
What sacrifices have I given to God that are not even necessary? What does He even desire of me? How many times have I played the martyr to a God who needs no sacrifices? Money, time, devotion, even physical pain...
It's not that these are not good enough for God, they're just completely wrong. Like that person who brings a beautiful store-bought gift to the White Elephant Christmas party. The gift is fine, they just missed the point entirely.
Jesus was pretty harsh about the whole "sacrifice for God" deal. Much more serious than the White Elephant exchange. He told people to stop praying so loudly, stop taking man-made rules and making them God-given Law, to give and serve quietly, and for Pete's sake, if your donkey is stuck in a hole on the Sabbath, get him out!
If the Christmas Goofy Gift Exchange wasn't awkward enough when someone unwraps a golden cow pie (Yes, I did.) and in return, you unwrap their box with a $10 gift card to Starbucks inside, what if we stood up and told them they should have given more. Something along the lines of, You wanna play that way? Well, where's my fifty dollars to Macy's? Sounds weird, I know, but that's exactly what Jesus did. (Well, actually He never talked about golden cow pies, gift cards, Macy's, or Starbucks.) But He went even further by telling these law-abiders that their rules weren't harsh enough. If you are going to play the "Who Can Sacrifice for God" game, you have all lost. Their sacrifices would never be enough. You haven't slept with your brother's wife, but did you lust after her? Just as bad.
After all, if righteousness - and acceptance and wholeness and grace and LIFE - can come through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2:21)
At some point, the Pharisees had to be incredibly frustrated and angry. After all, they had worked for years to perfect their law-abiding record. If God doesn't want our sacrifices, Rabbi Jesus, just what do you think He wants?!!
Mercy. Compassion. Just me. (And not the "cleaned up Sunday-best version"). Faith, no matter how small. (Hebrews 11:6).
Of course, the wonderful news is that when we give Him our very deepest parts, or the shallowest roots of new faith, He takes it and graces it. Suddenly, we want nothing more than to give Him everything else - service, time, efforts, thanks, love... The sacrifices pour out of us like music, and even if it's an off-key melody, grace says, "Well done! Let's sing some more!" (Matthew 25)
God's grace is not given like the stingy Ebeneezer Scrooge, just barely enough to cover all our junk.
His undeserved favor is lavished, superabundant, out of His riches, and completely independent of our performance. Whether our post-prayer knees hurt or not, whether we make dinner or not, whether dinner tasted good or not, whether we had babies out of wedlock or not, whether we are ugly or not, whether we aborted a baby or not, whether we work out of the home or stay at home, whether we birth our babies in a hospital or the bathtub, whether we make our kids do chores or not, whether we join the PTA or not, whether we eat organic or not, whether we use modern medicine or not, whether we wear sweats or skirts or blue jeans, grace is rich and real. It leads us not to guilt or to willful license to sin, but to Him who lavishes and accepts and changes our very DNA.
Paul tries to explain it in his letter to the Ephesians and he runs out of words to even describe this grace. As if he just can't put words to it, he says, "He graced us with His grace." (Ephesians 1:6)
In light of this, I am trying not to make it more difficult than it needs to be. Grace is grace, undeserved and fully mine. And yours too. No sacrifice makes us better or worse candidates for it.
P.S. Not too long ago, someone coming out of the "sacrifice for God" mentality spoke up and said, "Talk about grace, in a hundred different ways!" I love that challenge, and I believe Paul would have too. If you would like to see other snippets of grace, you can follow the link below, where Hillary herself has found life not in sacrifice, but in Him who sacrificed it all. You will find gentle words and many images of grace, if you want to click on any of the links.