Sunday, February 26, 2006


So in the name of avoiding laundry for as long as humanly possible, here is the long awaited entry on Grace.  Oh, and I’m going to stop capitalizing that now, partially because I’m not really sure it should be, and partially so I don’t have to hit the caps lock key quite so often.  I have freakishly tiny pinkies, and I tend to hit other keys when I reach for the shift key or anything else I need to hit with my pinky.

So, grace.  I’ve been noticing over the course of the adult inquirer classes at church that Lutherans talk about grace a whole lot more than Catholics do.  Oh, the concept is all throughout Catholic theology, but it’s never really discussed in a Bible study or educational setting or whatever unless the topic happens to be the Sacraments.  But my current pastor has talked about it in every class we have had so far, and mentions it in just about every sermon he preaches.

Last Sunday, when he called the decision the paralyzed man’s friends made to cut a hole in the roof and lower their friend down to see Jesus a “graced moment,” I started to contemplate exactly what grace was.

Now, I know that there are about a million websites out there that will give me a theological definition of grace from the perspective of about a thousand different religions, denominations, and churches.  That’s fine and dandy.  But I wanted an understanding of grace that would be something I could live with as I went through my everyday life.  If I am about to assent that I believe in “justification by grace through faith,” I should know what exactly that means for me.

Amateur linguist that I am, I thought I would start my quest by considering the secular uses of grace and words that come from grace.  When we say that an athlete or a dancer, or whatever is “graceful,” we usually mean that they move with such smoothness, such flawlessness, and such…panache as to make even the most difficult movements seem effortless.  When critics talk about graceful brushstrokes in a painting, or graceful lines of a sculpture, they usually mean that the work of art manages to draw the viewer into it, almost to the point that it ceases to be an inanimate object and becomes something more.  When a home itself is described as gracious, it usually brings to mind a rather large home that is well-decorated, but still manages to feel warm and “homey.”  

If someone is described as a gracious host, he or she is usually very attentive to and generous with his or her guests.  If a person acquits himself or herself with grace in a particular situation, he or she managed to get through a difficult time with his or her dignity intact, and without offending anyone or causing any further strife.

The prayer we say over meals is called “Grace.”  My mum belonged to Grace Lutheran Church.  Thousands of girls have been named Grace, especially since Grace Kelly married into the royal family of Monaco.  Entire websites are devoted to poems about grace.  When we see someone in a tough situation we barely avoided ourselves, we might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  One of very few hymns sung in just about every Christian church, regardless of denomination, is “Amazing Grace.”

So what does all this mean?  First of all, it means that grace is intangible and ephemeral.  You can’t say, “Well, if I only had two more ounces of grace in my life, everything would be OK.”  And I personally can’t imagine ever asking a pastor or a spiritual director how to get more grace in my life.  

But it also means that grace is undeniably real.  Like air, we often only recognize it by its absence.  If you gathered a group of random people in a room and asked them to come to a consensus about 10 people who are graceful, it will probably take them quite a while, and much contentious discussion.  But if I get up on the dance floor (or walk down the hall for that matter), no one is likely to think that God has blessed me with grace of movement.  (And if you need further proof of that, consider that I broke my foot while practicing the Mexican Hat dance, that I broke it again when I was walking down some steps, and that I ran over myself with a van.)

All this is well and good, but what does it mean?  How can I recognize a graced moment, and how can I live grace in my life?

I had planned to write something a little different than what I’m going to, but I had yet another revelation as I was typing this.  The first lines of “Amazing Grace” actually offered me an interesting idea: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me…”

Sound.  When I though about grace as a sound, something clicked for me.  One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament is when some Old Testament guy (yeah, I was raised Catholic – I remember passages, but not details)…wait.  I’m going to get a Bible.

OK.  It was Elijah (I knew it was an “E” name – I had Ezekiel on my mind, but as soon as I saw the book, I remembered that he was the creepy prophet - Fr. O’s words, not mine).  The passage is 1 Kings 19: 9-13.

Elijah was looking for God, but he didn’t find him in fire, or earthquakes, or wind – all big, noticeable things.  Elijah found God in a tiny whisper.

I think that tiny whisper, that God-sound, in all of us is grace.  It’s our assurance that, no matter how crappy things are going, no matter how mean other people are, no matter how bad we feel about ourselves, or how bad we screw things up, we are Loved.  Grace is the knowledge that there is nothing we did to deserve that Love, nothing we can do to buy our way into that Love, and nothing we can do to lose that Love.  

That God-sound, God-love, helps a dancer or athlete through the hours upon hours of rehearsals and practices that make their tasks seem effortless.  That God-sound, God-Love enables an artist or sculptor to see the beauty of creation and the motion of a piece of canvas or lump of clay.  A composer is able to bring that God-sound to the page, and a musician is able to translate it into something almost tangible.  A writer releases that God-love through ink and paper (or pixels and electrons) and shares it with others.

The God-sound of grace is what compels someone to be generous and gracious to his or her guests, or to total strangers.  It is what sends people to remote areas to help make other’s lives better.  It is what encourages us to listen to someone who is lonely.

I think this is a definition of grace I can live.  And I pray that I may always listen to that God-sound, and appreciate and share that God-love.

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