Grace; unmerited favor. Can't be earned. Can't be bought. A freely given gift of unwarranted love. To be loved because I am.
My children taught me grace. When they first emerged into this bright world, they needed to be held, to be cuddled, to feel gentle hands assuring them that they were safe; that they were loved.
When my youngest son was born, the nurse gave him to me to hold. I walked over to a corner of the room away from the bright lights, and rocked him in my arms as I whispered words of joy. He shook his tiny head, and struggled to open his eyes. We gazed into one another. Time stopped. Nothing but the flow of love between us existed. A moment of grace. A moment that seemed so natural, so spontaneous, and in some ways, so familiar. I had been to that place before. But I couldn't remember when, or where.
As the years went by, the grace flowed. As love was given, it was now returned; not because I was such a perfect father, or the most handsome, or the smartest; but because I was Dad.
This is the root of my understanding of our relationship with God. God is madly, head-over-heals in love with us, and woos us, and all of creation, into being, because we are. I have a hard time holding on to this foundational relationship. In day to day life, it doesn't fit very well.
Many of us learned of grace at an early age from our families. One day, we were sent off to school, to be educated and socialized. We learned new rules. We must earn respect. Life is about competition. Happiness is found in being better; smarter, faster, stronger, funnier. We saw the lives of adults in a new, frightening, stark light. If we were to be loved, we had to perform. The "real" world was not about grace at all. It was all about competition.
As Wordsworth would say;
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
William is a bit more strident than I feel right now, but he gives voice to some of my frustrations. When I look deep within myself, I find a weary soul, tired of striving. I don't have many glimpses of grace that would make me less forlorn.
Grace is still there, but some days I seem to have misplaced her. I know that more study, more good deeds, more striving will satisfy my need to "do something" about this tragedy, but I also know that path is a dead end. It's more a matter of remembering.
Would I rather be a pagan? I don't think so. For me, Jesus Christ is the window, the icon, by which I glimpse something that is very close to what I'm trying to remember. I need an icon, an image, a symbol, to help ideas, longings, and glimpsed memories to become concrete and real. Christ is that icon for me.
The historical Christ is a powerful example, but left to myself, he could easily become no more than another heroic figure from the past. I need something more concrete; something that will engage me in the here and now, something, or someone, who will help me keep grace in sight.
The tool, the icon, the window that I have discovered is the Church. As Christ is the outward and visible sign of God, so the Church is intended to be the outward and visible sign of Christ. The Church is first and foremost sacramental; the sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
The problem with the Church is that it is made up of frail and flawed people like myself who have also been indoctrinated into the ways of "getting and spending." Some critics of Protestant Christianity have claimed that it is "the merchant's religion." I think there's some truth in that statement.
Don't misunderstand me; I love the Church. She continues to be a wonderful conduit of grace. But some of the messages that come from her seem so lacking in grace.
For instance, I just don't know what to do with the whole idea of hell. I'm sorry, but if heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss, how could I be there and know even one soul is burning in hell? It would certainly ruin my bliss. There's something twisted in the way hell is often presented. It sounds like more competition; the goal in life is to get your ticket, and to hell with everyone else. I fail to see the grace in that. I don't suggest I know anything about the next life. I choose to simply admit my ignorance, and try to look for grace in this life, and leave the next one in the hands of God.
Then there is the idea, articulated in its most extreme form as extra ecclesiam nulla salus est, "outside the Church there is no salvation." This takes on various forms today; one of the most popular being "unless you accept Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior, you are not saved." The gift of grace has strings attached? Having directed quite a few non-profits over the years, one lesson I have learned is that a gift with strings attached is not a gift. Just say no.
Obviously the gift has to be accepted; recognized and received for what it is. But this is more a matter of awareness than a striving to earn it, it seems to me. I struggle with the image of God as the great coin machine in the sky; insert the right prayer, the right devotion, the right action in the slot, and bing! swoosh! clunk! out comes a bottle of grace, or a packet of forgiveness. Is our relationship with God primarily a transaction? Is God a "problem" to "solve"? Or are we puppets in a divine game in which the winners are defined by the existence of losers? If so, then indeed I would "rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn..." I'll choose standing in awe before a mystery any day.
I once heard a preacher say in a sermon, "The Church is a harlot, but she's all we've got." Harsh, but it dances near the truth, I think. Yet, I find that I cannot give up on the Church, anymore than I can give up on humanity. I don't imagine that I can personally initiate any lasting changes in the Church. The only thing I know I can change is Jake. To recall the gift of grace, it is helpful to return to the places where I last saw her. And I have seen her so many times on the faces of those with whom I share this journey; my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is within this community that grace flows. Sometimes, in the midst of the liturgy or a study, I catch the eye of another, and I see that place I shared with my newborn son. Such moments fill me with joy and a sense of peace; God's grace continues to flow among us.
Can this grace ripple outward to embrace all of creation? I think it can, and I think it does. We just don't see it, because we are too busy convincing each other that grace is a commodity, and we have a monopoly on the market. Our grace is "special" because we have it and you don't. Silly creatures, aren't we?
We can transform this world, if we are conduits of grace, giving and receiving as the hands of Christ in the world today.
She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hers
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stains
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness
-U2 (thanks, Joe!)