The Magnificent V-Neck of Grace

My mom has never complained about the size of my head, with concern to my birth. But then again, I was born via C-section, so I can only assume that the doctors saw the size of my head on ultrasound and said something to the effect of “There’s no way that head is getting out naturally… scalpel! STAT!”

My point is that: as long as I’ve been cognizant of my head, it has always seemed large in comparison to other people’s heads. And my body. I have a bobble head. I mean – I have a bobble head doll of myself that a friend gave me a while back. But it looks strangely life-like.

I have been accused of having a big head in regards to my pride. While that might be true, that isn’t what I speak of here. I have a large cranium. In So I Married An Axe Murderer I most identified with the Mike Myer’s brother, of whom was said, “His head is HUGE! It’s like Sputnik.”

* * * * *

When I was a kid, my parents were missionaries and were very, very poor. They were old school missionaries – we traveled around in a fire engine red, wood-paneled Dodge station wagon (with both a back and a back-back seat), from church to church, hoping that these small, backwoods, fundamentalist, independent Baptist churches might take us on for twenty-five, fifty and sometimes even one hundred dollars a month.

When my dad quit his job as an associate pastor / minister of music at a somewhat large church in Durham, NC to go on deputation, we had no support, no paycheck. My parents trusted God to provide… and He always did. And over two years, we slowly but surely raised enough support to go live in Germany to minister to the U.S. Military.

But even after raising full support, my parents struggled to make ends meet in an economy that was nearly double the cost of living in the United States. So – we would regularly get donated – usually used – clothes from churches in the U.S., and we were blessed to wear them… no matter how stylish or “cool” they might be.

So – to say that clothes that I actually liked were few and far between would be a vast understatement. I wore a lot of janky stuff back in the mid-1980’s.

But in one box came a Chicago Bears Jim McMahon jersey. I knew little of who the Chicago Bears were and I had no clue who Jim McMahon was. I was nine or ten and the jersey was a little big but it was MINE. I wore that jersey as often as I could. I would get home from school, put on my Jim McMahon jersey and go out and play imaginary football. I’d play quarterback, drop back, avoid the sack, and choose to either throw the ball to my wide receiver (myself) or hand off to my running back (myself) or take off down the field to avoid the tackle for a loss.

I’m not saying I was a normal kid. But this is what an American kid in Germany did for fun.

I loved that jersey. It was a replica NFL jersey of the time… the thick collared V-neck (long before V-necks were hipster), the glossy stripes and numbers and – of course the long, tight sleeves. I dunno how interested I was in girls at that age, but I know that if I wore that jersey today… well, it’d be way to small. But if I WERE interested in girls back then, they all woulda swooned over that Jim McMahon jersey.

One day, though, I put my jersey on, and my large, large head got stuck. No matter how hard I tried, I could not for the life of me get my head through the hole. It was so stuck, in fact, that I couldn’t even get the thing back off. I searched out my dad, and he just began to laugh.

“Son, you’re trying to put your head through the arm hole! Here, let me show you the right way.”

He quickly pulled that tight long sleeve off my large cranium and I was able to put my shirt on to go hand off and pass my football to myself.

* * * * *

The Apostle Paul said, “I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. But if I do what I want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself doesn’t dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I can’t carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”

Sheesh, Paul. What a freaking mind-bending twist of words!

But, man, do I identify.

If you asked me most days what I want to do, I’d tell you a laundry list of things, all of them good: make sure my wife and kids know I love them through my actions and my words; make sure my co-workers and employees know that their health and lives is more important than any excellence we could be chasing; to more closely pattern every action after the teachings of Jesus; etc., etc.

But how often do I work so hard within myself to try and be perfect, to try and make everything in my life right and perfect. And yet it all seems to fail.

To be honest, living the Christian life… chasing sanctification – it’s a bit like me trying to fit my large head through the long tight sleeve of that Jim McMahon jersey. We struggle and we strive and we work so hard to get our head through it… till we go find our Father and he (I assume) chuckles just like my earthly dad did, and quietly helps us realize we’re doing it wrong.

That’s what Romans 7 and 8 is, I think. It’s our Father helping us see that the striving and the fighting and attempt to “be right” – outside of His power – is futile.

* * * * *

Earlier in Romans 7, Paul says this “Don’t you know that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?” And then he explains to us how we were once alive in the flesh, but now we are dead to Christ.

It’s a strange thought, to be honest. We’re alive. Then when we believe and put our faith in Christ, we become dead to ourselves. In Romans 7, Paul puts it like this: “By dying to what once bound us, we are released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and in the old way of the law.”

Perhaps a better way to say it – and certainly a more famous way – is how Paul puts it in Galatians 2: “For through the law I died to the law that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.”

Wow. That speaks to me.

The Law – this list of rules and specifications by which you MUST live in order to be right with God – the Law was impossible. The Law was futile. The Law was mankind struggling and fighting and trying to fit a tight, long sleeve over our giant heads… and failing miserably.

But when we believe, and choose faith in the Son of God, it’s as if God the Father is pulling this sleeve off and helping us easily slip our heads through that slick, collared, pre-hipster, awesome V-neck that has PLENTY of room for our head.

If it’s a set of rules that make me a good husband, I will fail. If it’s a set of rules that make me a good leader, I will fail. If it’s a set of rules that make me a good anything, I will fail. I have failed.

But it isn’t the law that does those things. It is Christ living in me. I am dead to the law… but SO very alive.

* * * * *

I remember the day that my Jim McMahon jersey no longer fit. I remember throwing that jersey away. It had holes all over it, from all the times I’d been tackled. The numbers were crinkled and faded. The sleeves had stretched out a bit. I never got anything as cool ever again in any of the care boxes, and so I’ll always remember that jersey.

But even more I’ll always remember my dad being there, helping me pull that jersey off of my head and showing me how to do it right.

Now-a-days, I hope that I can die to the law and fit through the magnificent V-neck of grace.