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Grace is that ineffable, mysterious moment that arrives when you are least expecting it. The moment when you are—for no good reason—given a fresh start. A moment that changes the inevitable into the possible, a moment that arrests fate and gives instead a deep and soaring sense of freedom. Its most important characteristic is that it is undeserved.
In the remote past, the concept of “grace” was defined as a gift from God. The gift of grace was understood to be the central ingredient necessary for salvation. Some Christians understood that God extended all the grace necessary for a mere human being to be free of death and live on; to enter heaven. Yet also in Christianity, there was the notion—held just as strongly—that getting into heaven had nothing to do with grace, but rather had everything to do with what one did on earth. Good works were more important than grace. A life of integrity, of aligning one’s highest values with the actions one took, would unlock the key to salvation.
These two views—grace or works—were understood so differently, that big public debates, some that lasted for days, were held trying to determine a “winner.” Was it what one received or what one did that brought everlasting life?
The debates eventually finally fell out of favor. Perhaps humans learned to live with the dichotomy that two things can be true at once.
We know that good works—that charitable acts—happen, as does the gift of grace undeserved.
Perhaps what has changed is that we care less about what paves the way to heaven.
What I think we care about is what makes for good relationship with ourselves, with each other, between polarized factions.
If you have experienced grace, you probably have a story to tell of how suddenly it arrived, how powerful it was, how it set you free from what should have bound you.
Unchained from the logical consequences of your behavior, you realize that from whatever source grace appeared, what had cast your future in concrete suddenly was gone and your future could then wing its way across the sky, rising to a new level that had not been possible before.
Grace powers our freedom to fly above the logic of consequences.
Perhaps acknowledgement of grace is best defined by poetry, fiction, art?
Anne Lamott says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
It seems to me that what we care about now is not so much our individual salvation, but rather will the human community survive? Will our children—will our planet—know a tomorrow?
Grace has a place in answering that question.
Being open to grace can help us understand and accept that our lives need not be anchored in the inevitable consequences of our past.
It is not only about being open to grace that arrives from the outside, but the graciousness that each of us is capable of.
Have you ever heard of Herman Bisbee? He was a minister; a character from the 1800s, the only person ever excommunicated by the Universalists. Yes, I said the Universalists.
Accused of heresy in 1872, the Rev. Herman Bisbee was found guilty of bringing Unitarian ideas into the Universalist church.
You may have heard the meme that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humans to hell; they believed that God’s grace insured that all were saved. On the other hand, there are the Unitarians who believed humans were too good to be damned (meaning too “smart” not to engage in all the good works needed to gain them entry into heaven).
Bisbee, although he had grown up, been educated, and was employed as a Universalist minister, declared in a series of sermons that “in … religion, there is no gift. Salvation does not come by grace.”
What? A Universalist declaring himself not to believe in the saving grace of God! Surely that was heresy!
I wonder, though, if maybe Bisbee’s real heresy was that he delivered the results of what he had come to believe was the way to salvation with no graciousness!
Bisbee not only declared that there ought to be no concept of grace in religion, no such thing as something the eye cannot see, no such thing as something that science or logic cannot prove, no such thing as a free pass to heaven; but he said it in a way that left no room for anyone else to have a differing opinion, or to come to a different conclusion.
“Heresy!” the Universalists claimed.
I do not have the “back story” of what Bisbee might have been experiencing when he changed his mind about God and about grace. What I do know is that the same year he was accused of heresy, his wife had died.
I do not know what was going on with dear Herman when he laid down the “truth” in his view. I do know that a radical shift in one’s circumstances can cause one to alter their long-held values, to steer hard to the other side of where they have been.
If you have always assumed that grace is going to be present and suddenly it is not, it might make your head spin. Perhaps, just as true, is that one might steer hard away from logical consequences when grace suddenly breaks in.
Many of us have been through something that made us question what we formerly believed. We may have—to cope with loss—steered hard to the opposite side.
I grew up in a religion that believed in grace. Yet I was a logical, linear thinker as a child. Things I was told in the church of my childhood did not always make sense to me.
So, perhaps I was primed to steer hard away from relying on grace to being the one who stated the hard facts without any soft edge after experiencing the death of a parent as a young adult. It was much later when I met Universalists; gracious, positive folk, moving through the world with a kind of ease I had forgotten, knowing that in the end all was going to be alright.
A couple of years ago, I was in quite a funk. Disgusted, disillusioned with the world. A person I did not know well, who did not know me, listened to my tale of woe. Instead of moving away, or telling me not to feel what I felt, she received my anger, my disillusion with grace—with “graciousness.” She even thanked me for the hard work my generation had done to make the world better for hers.
Some human beings just embody grace.
Barack Obama puts it this way: “…what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That is what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.”
She did that for me.
Grace feels undeserved; it feels that one is receiving more than one could have reasonably expected.
In some church circles there is a thing called “cheap grace,” meaning you can go out on Saturday night and act like the devil, and be predictably saved on Sunday morning—again and again, without ever really changing.
It is “cheap” when we rely on the forgiveness, without changing: “We can do what we please and still be alright, ‘cause maybe we have made God into a fool.”
Real grace changes us. It does not matter if the benevolence we are shown comes from the universe or God or another person. What really matters is that we learn to make space for grace.
What really matters is that we take the gift and with integrity fold it into who we are becoming.
For me, being open to grace, and being more giving of grace, has to do with my integrity, my lifelong quest for wholeness. It has to do with getting away from my calculations of “if I do this, then such and such will happen” and learning again and again to just be in the moment in a fluid, open way, not too stuck in the past or the future. Living open to grace has to do with simplicity, with stripping away the complications and complexities and just making a simple gesture or statement that is freeing for me and for you, that allows love to happen.
I had a long overdue phone visit with a very old friend today. We caught each other up on the facts and the flow or our respective lives. At the end of that conversation there was a simple and sincere exchange of “I love yous.” (The only kind of hug we could do during a long distance phone call.)
That exchange of simple and sincere words, which in person might have been a smile or a hug or a glimmer in our eyes, wiped away years of neglect and wounds and not being there for each other during hard times.
It was a starting over moment. I call it grace, or a time when grace happened. Grace, for me, breaks into my complex layers of chatter and obsessive activities, reminding me that life really is a series of moments that sustain and nourish my spiritual being.