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Surprised by grace

I returned the book* one day late. I knew it was late. I could have returned it the day before, but I had a few more pages to finish. So I kept it. Kept it from the next person on the list, who had put a hold on it, whose right it was to have it. To get to start reading it. I was delinquent and I knew it.

Sheepishly, I approached the white-haired woman at the checkout counter. Producing the book, I apologized for having kept it a day past its due date. I fingered the coins in my hand, ready to pay for my transgression. The woman smiled at me as she took the book. “You’re probably OK,” she told me, “We build in a day of grace.” After scanning in my return, she paused a moment and then declared, “You’re forgiven.”

Ho-ho! How delighted I was to hear those words! I admit I had a sudden urge to ask this woman to repeat herself so I could record her on video. Thought better of this, though, and left the library, smiling broadly, my quarters still in my pocket. I’m actually not sure how much the one day fine would have been had it been assessed, but not much. Certainly, my gratitude at being excused was out of proportion with the giddiness I felt. Not at getting away with something, but at confessing that thing and being surprised by my forgiveness.

That’s the singular thing about grace that has us kicking up our heels in delight. Because we don’t deserve it we don’t expect it so it catches us completely off guard. It’s a gift we didn’t see coming. Swoops in and sweeps us completely off our feet.

Funny, this instance has reminded me of the conversation Jesus had with Simon-Peter when he was belly-aching about the extravagant love shown Jesus by a woman “who had lived a sinful life.” Jesus asked Peter to reconsider her via a parable about a money-lender who forgave two debtors, neither of whom could pay; one owed 10X the amount owed by the other (Luke 7:41-48*). Then Jesus asked, Now which of them will love him (the money-lender) more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

Well, here I am, over the moon about my small debt forgiven while I celebrate this moment of grace. Until the sinner in me realizes that now that I know there will be a day of grace extended, I will very likely be tempted to take advantage of “my extra day” as if it were mine to take rather than His to give.

Apparently, the amazing thing about grace isn’t its quantity, quality or availability. It’s that it comes as a complete and utter surprise. After that, we’d do well to keep the gratitude gig going.

*Searching for Sunday, by the late Rachel Held Evans

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What gets your attention?

We all notice, don’t we? The thing that wasn’t there before. The thing that isn’t but was. The thing that’s different from one image to the next. Heck, that’s a puzzle I loved to do as a kid! Find all 10!

Yes, if we’re paying even the slightest attention, we notice when something has changed, been moved, seems out of place or is acting strangely. That’s why airport security admonishes us, “If you see something, say something.”

The funny thing is, we were made for this. It’s a survival mechanism. Really. Our perceptors (my new word: receptors for perception) are designed to alert us when something might be dangerous. Did you know that your body responds more quickly and forcefully to a critter crawling UP your arm than to the one crawling DOWN? Yep. One is a threat to the jugular; the other may only nibble a finger or toe. No biggie.

So, given this design, it’s not surprising to find that something moving quickly in our peripheral vision draws our attention. Someone behaving oddly gets our gaze. Someone dressed distinctively gives us pause. Honestly, when something or someone is different, it is hard to look away — even when it’s impolite to stare.

I find it at least a little bit comforting to realize that it isn’t just my socio-cultural bias at play here: a good bit of this responsiveness is programmed in. I’m designed to notice different and be wary, AND I’m drawn to seek the similar because it brings me comfort. It’s our instinctive nature to distinguish among and between in order to seek safety, security and well-being. It’s the same for all the animals in the animal kingdom. Draw close; protect your own.

Today’s world, though, is demanding more of me and of us. It is calling us away from the basic animal in our nature toward what is unique to our human nature. Yes, we have biases — ingrained, learned and polished over years of practice. There’s no disputing: We do prefer this to that. We understand this and not that. We accept this and reject that. But our humanity has been dealt a brilliant extra card: a mind that can notice its bias and reject it.

It’s a small thing really, to catch myself in the act of assigning a story to someone I see but don’t know, whether it’s on the TV, in the news or in the parking lot at my local shopping center. I have discovered that I can nip that thought right in the bud, though. In fact, I’ve taken to giving myself a little swat on the thigh to say, “Stop that right there, you!” That’s what you’d hear if your earbuds were listening in to my brain. I trust you aren’t, but the Big Someone Else surely is.

So, I figure I ought to listen, as Lincoln put it, to the angels of my better nature. They’re telling me to: lead with forgiveness, err on the side of generosity, assume the best in the other — until further notice. Lotta grace flowing down that stream. Grace I don’t always even give myself. Got a lot to learn.

Ironic, the difference between what gets your attention and what you give your attention to. Every animal in the kingdom comes pre-programmed for survival. We humans have the capacity to discern, decide and re-direct. Thought by ever-loving thought.

When the storm brings rain

We had a much-needed rain last night. Though the arrogant lightning flashed boldly in my window making it hard to fall asleep, when I heard the droplets pelting against my window pane I knew that thirsty Mother Earth would be glad for a drink. In the morning, the soaking had left a smile on the face of my struggling, newly sodded lawn and renewed my hope that the hydrangea I had transplanted into the front mulch bed — a gift to me from my new next-door neighbor — might still gather the strength to stand up tall. Nice as he is, I felt sure he would be noticing.

As I strode along the drive and then through the neighborhood with my two energetic pups, my shoes became altogether sodden thanks to the puddling on the path which didn’t drink the rain up. Neither did signs and vehicles we passed, nor the metal-covered electrical box, nor the roadway, nor the roofs of nearby homes or their driveways nor the …. But so much did. The browning hillside. The drooping trees and bent shrubs. The colorful annuals planted hopefully along the foundations. These surely did.

Suddenly I felt an odd gratitude for the indiscriminate nature of the rains, falling on all things equally, like the grace of God. Paying no mind to where they land — whether needed or well-received, whether shirked, shed or run off down the hill into the pond — they distributed themselves equally. Yes, the Father sends rain on the just and unjust.

At once I felt a bit of a twinge, recalling times when I had prickled at the apparent unfairness of good things that had come to the poorly mannered, undeserving, entitled or even to the apparently wicked while the same good seemed to be withheld from those who needed or deserved it the most. I needed this simple reminder that the grass, my grass, didn’t receive its rain because it needed it but because of the even-tempered and merciful nature of the One who delivers it.

So that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) 

When we put our hope and trust in humans and human ways, we are sure to be disappointed, but if we trust in God first, perhaps we can trust in what God’s grace can do. Even in them. Even in us. Especially in the storms of life.

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