Tuesday — This week, we’re talking about grace.
And I hope that this week, we’re open to being embraced by dollops of grace. Moments (yes, moments) when we know that we matter, that someone knows us and sees us, and is willing to open their arms wide, no matter what.
In Monday Sabbath Moment, we told a story about Mr. Rogers and the gift of grace. Gratefully, like Mr. Rogers, grace doesn’t leave. Grace calls something—invites something beautiful—from each one of us, and grace never leaves until the invitation is heard and embraced. It may shake up our life, there’s no doubt about that. We’re not used to being unconditionally loved.
I don’t know where you see Grace in your life. I do know we don’t cut ourselves enough slack, and I do know that when Grace appears, it’s best if we don’t analyze it, but just… pause, and let it seep into the core of our being. The reality of true Grace is that it does not waiver or diminish. It does not depend upon our response, performance, attitude, faith or checkered past. It just is.
Grace is not easy to embrace or internalize because I still hear (and pay attention to) the message that my (our) identity and worth is tied to a measurement of certainty. And control.
So. It is no wonder we easily see (focus on) what we call “shortcomings” (the constraints, condition, wheelchair, etc.) as weakness and therefore, an absence. The message: We are not enough.
And we miss the voice of grace.
And so, I always return to the story that reminds me, and reenforces for me, the voice of grace.
My grandmother–Southern Baptist born and bred–didn’t cotton to folks in her church who played the judgmental-eternal-damnation-card just to feel good about themselves, or for the sake of proving a point. She understood that in her church’s “theology,” there were many kinds of people “on the outside.” (Truth be told, in her church, “most” people were “on the outside.”) But my grandmother lived by an overriding imperative: “Anybody is welcome at my dinner table, no questions asked, no matter what.”
In the latter years of her life, in the back yard of her home in northern Florida, my grandmother had a porch swing. She liked to sit, and swing, and hum old church hymns. I can still see her there, wearing a white scarf over her head, a concession to chemotherapy’s unrelenting march. When I visited her, as a young adult, she would always ask me to sit with her on the swing, for a spell. She would pat my leg and call me “darlin’.”
As long as my grandmother lived–and in spite of her pain–there was always a place for me on the swing. If I were asked to explain Grace, I would paint the picture of my grandmother’s swing. There, I never had to deliberate or explain or worry regardless of the weight I carried. The swing–my grandmother’s presence–existed without conditions.
And I am here today, because of that swing.
Wednesday — What does grace have to do with navigating our days?
Grace tells me that my well-being and value is a given. Without it, I will underestimate my capacity for spiritual hydration. I underestimate my immune system for fighting toxicity. When I lose sight of grace, I live embattled internally, so it’s no wonder I do battle externally and live fearful.
Truth be told, and gratefully; I smile real big remembering a time when grace became real to me.
I was raised in a church that didn’t believe in dancing. (Come to think of it, they didn’t believe in anything that spawned pleasure of any kind, and though I can’t prove it, I think they were opposed to giggling as well.)
As a teenager, church camps would have bonfires for the sole purpose of burning anything that came between us and God. (I wish I were making this up.) And one thing was certain: We knew God hated rock ‘n roll. The preacher told us so. With a puffy livid crimson face. I can still see it in my mind.
In High School, my favorite 45 (no, we had no iPod or Spotify), was The Beatles, The Long and Winding Road (the A side). (Good trivia: on the B side, For You Blue.)
And… I’m not sure how I acquired it, under my parents’ radar. This I know; I used to play it over and over and over, and let the music carry me to some kind of bliss. And now, the preacher told me that my record was an occasion to sin. (This is an odd turn of phrase, since the music brought me such unconditional delight).
On a summer night, my vinyl-45-record burned, with many others, and we watched the smoke carry our sinful ways into the Michigan sky. I told this story a few times at various retreats.
Fast forward thirty-five years. I am speaking in the Anaheim Convention Center. Two friends walk up to the stage and present me with a slim cardboard mailing box. On the outside is written, Amazing Grace. On the inside, a 45-vinyl record, circa 1970, The Beatles, The Long and Winding Road.
I am certain of this: there was more grace in that gift than any sermon I have ever heard. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I can’t see God unless there is skin attached. And because of grace, there is no substitute for the presence of one another.
So yes. Grace is my hope.
Thursday — Grace calls something—invites something beautiful—from each one of us, and grace never leaves until the invitation is heard and embraced. It may shake up our life, there’s no doubt about that. We’re not used to being unconditionally loved.
It was scheduled as “boy’s weekend out.” Five friends hurtling down the Colorado River, a white-water raft our ticket to peril and pleasure. We had been plotting this day, determining ways to make it a sport, a contest, talking big about our fearlessness and our desire for serious rapids. We were, after all, real men, all belly and bravado, and nature’s playground beckoned. The sun reigned high over an expansive Colorado mountain sky, endless and open, bleached of any rich or subtle hues.
The sun baked our faces while continual sprays of river water baptized us with exhilaration. We whooped and cavorted and egged each other on. We looked forward to that evening in the Jacuzzi, beer in hand, telling and retelling the day, a forum for exaggeration and pure blarney about our exploits.
While the rafting crew worked to pull the raft from the water after our run was completed, I climbed the embankment and sat on a rock near the top, drinking in the warmth of afternoon. The area near me was littered with woody mountain shrubs. Something else caught my eye. Over the embankment to my left, growing from a ledge, stood a single clump of iris, sixteen inches high, a desert gemstone in a rich azure luster.
I scrambled down near the ledge–literally on my belly, my face near the flower–and gaped, frozen as if in the company of a magical snow leopard.
I confess to you that I touched its delicate falls like the face of a lover.
And then I didn’t exactly know who to tell or what exactly I would say: “Hey guys. Come up here and check out this flower!”
That would have gone over big.
I do know that my hand shook as if I were overcome with awe. A Barbara Kingsolver line came to mind: “A great many people will live out their days without ever seeing such sights, or if they do, never gasping.”
I felt lucky. And I knew. This is why I had come to Colorado. A single iris arresting something rudimentary in me. All my previous priorities paled. For neither my resume nor my clerical collar mattered one whit to that flower. For most of my life, my spiritual had depended upon answers. Sitting on an embankment above the Colorado River, I had none. Only the glow of a flower, the warmth of the sun, and the invigoration of the river’s energy and strength. I had only mystery and awe. And peace. For once there was no compulsion to explain, or clarify, or analyze.
Which meant that I was lost in the moment–what Jean-Pierre de Caussade (18th Century) called the Sacrament of the Present Moment–seeing each “present moment” as diffused with the sacred. It reminded me of Susanna Wesley’s immortal prayer, “Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation but that everywhere I am in Thy presence.”
So I sat for a spell in that presence, and at home. Here’s the quandary: How do you tell someone that you were unraveled by an iris? It’s not exactly fodder for small talk.
Like it or not, the card deck of life’s priorities is reshuffled in moments like that. Your resume takes a back seat, and you scramble up the embankment with a new posture, and a new frame of reference, knowing that your load is a little lighter even though you hold something new and sacred in your heart.
Friday — I don’t know where you see Grace in your life. But know this, it is there, even when we tell ourselves we can’t see it. So, this week, we’ve been on the lookout for dollops of grace, in ordinary moments.
In Monday Sabbath Moment, we told a story about Mr. Rogers and the gift of grace (asking a young boy with cerebral palsy if he would pray for Mr. Rogers). Gratefully, like Mr. Rogers, grace doesn’t leave. Grace calls something—invites something beautiful—from each one of us, and grace never leaves until the invitation is heard and embraced. It may shake up our life, there’s no doubt about that. We’re not used to being unconditionally loved.
I forgot to add Tom Junod’s afterward: “As for Mister Rogers himself… well, he doesn’t look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart–for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself–and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. ‘Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.'” Grace invites something beautiful. Indeed.
Speaking of dollops of grace… music does it for me, and tonight I’ll be enjoying Jesus Christ Superstar at the Paramount in Seattle. My first experience with this musical was in 1973, at The Palace Theatre in London, England. A university student in London, my theater class “required” that I attend two plays a week in London. (Can you guess that it is still my favorite class ever? And here’s the fun part, student’s tickets for plays in London, only five pounds. My Oh My, what a delight. Just sayin’.) Here’s the deal: Grace is not a theological construct, as if something we need to find the right answer to, in order to pass the test. Nothing to earn or achieve.
Grace is letting yourself be embraced. And seen. Knowing that this you, is enough. Let that settle in for a wee bit.
This you, is enough.
Messy? Yes indeed. Complicated? Troubled? Rough edges and needing repair? Most likely. And none of that changes the affirmation of grace.
In fact, grace becomes the soil for change…
“I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, “Don’t change. I love you just as you are.” Those words were music to my ears: “Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change . . . I love you as you are.” I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!” Anthony de Mello
Here’s our Prayer Blessing…
A Blessing to calm rough seas
When you are on a rough sea
May it be calmed for you
When you are in a dark place
May it be lightened for you
When your path has been lost
May it be found again for you
When the view is obscured by cloud
May it be cleared for you
And when you feel alone
Know I will be there for you.