Words are slippery things. Especially words we use with a variety of meanings for a variety of purposes. Words like “Grace.” One little one is invited to a friend’s house for the evening meal. She is unaccustomed to a prayer before the meal. But the parents of her friend ask her if she would like to say “grace.” She brightens up and says loud and clear, “grace.”
Grace is more than a table prayer. But neither is “grace” intervention or rescue on the part of a higher power. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I say those words. If you stop and think about it, they suggest that God plays favorites. Some he subjects to incredible troubles. Others by his grace he delivers from such troubles.
So what’s it all about. Clearly as the Apostle uses it, “grace” means “gift.” And gift which never turns into possession. Nothing we can commandeer, take control of. It is perpetual gift. Like life itself.
Hard to accept that, bathed as we are in a culture that exalts the autonomous individual, suggesting at every turn that we can have it our way, can create our own story and future without reference to will of God or the needs of others, belong to no one but ourself.
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But central to this old faith is the insistence that this life we awakened to this morning is not ours to do with as we see fit. It is a gift from beyond us to be accepted and celebrated as worth the living no matter what the hours bring. Remember the song from “Fiddler?” To life. L’chaim! To life. An ancient Hebrew word. Dr. Rachel Remen tells how her grandfather taught her. He always said it with great enthusiasm. “‘Is it to a happy life, Grandpa?’ I had asked him once. He had shaken his head no. ‘It is just ‘To life!’ Neshume-le,’ he told me.
“At first this did not make a lot of sense to me, and I struggled to understand his meaning. “Is it like a prayer?” I asked uncertainly. “Ah no, Neshume-le” he told me. “We pray for the things we don’t have. We already have life. I puzzled about this for some time. “Is it written in the Bible, Grandpa?” I asked at last. “No, Neshume-le” he said, “it is written in people’s hearts.” Seeing the confusion on my face he told me that L’Chiam! meant that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration.
“It has been almost fifty-five years since I last heard my grandfather’s voice, but I remember the joy with which he toasted Life and the twinkle in his eye as he said L’Chiam! It has always seemed remarkable to me that such a toast could be offered for generations by a people for whom life has not been easy. But L’Chaim is a way of living life. As I’ve grown older, it seems less and less about celebrating life and more about the wisdom of embracing life. In the many years that I have been counseling people with cancer, I have seen people embrace life again and again, despite loss and pain and difficulty. The same immutable joy I saw in my grandfather’s eyes is there in them all.”
Seeing our lives as grace, means the faith to see our days here as a gift, precious and fragile, and worth the living. I would that we could raise our young to see themselves through the lens of grace, rather than achievement or possession or rights or demands. Acceptance that even the limitations life has laid on us may be the place where God wants us to be and alive.
Denis Shekerjian writes of Michael Lerner, director of Commonweal, recipient of one of the MacArthur Grants, who had to deal with chronic pain much of his life. “When something bad happens he treats it as an opportunity to learn, to deepen his life experience and accumulate wisdom. He says he greets it at the front door with open arms: ‘Here you are, pain, old friend. I’ve been waiting for you to come back. You haven’t been to visit for a while.’ It seemed an awfully warm greeting for something that hurts. So I pressed for a clarification. He said, ‘I am deeply grateful for all the good things in my life, but at the same time I recognize that if you make your peace of mind dependent upon good things, you are not going to be in very good shape. There is the idea of acceptance, the quality of learning how to be satisfied with the life you’ve been given. I work very hard at that. And you know Shakespeare talks about it in one of his sonnets -–a man with contentment has something greater than kings. So if something difficult happens to me, I try to welcome it, accept it, work with it. I treat it as what is happening now. I don’t get too excited by my victories or too disappointed by my defeats and in that way I come closer to peace of mind and the deep inner place that creativity comes from.'”
Life itself is grace, a gift to be embraced. And grace is always a matter of relationships, not a stuff you can swallow or pocket. I mean no authentic relationship is something we create or control. Marriage, friendship either comes as a gift freely given and received, or its very integrity, its very life is undermined. Those who in need seek to manipulate or possess the other destroy the very possibility of real relationship. And so I tell the young couples who stand before me on a Saturday afternoon, “You did not invent what you are doing. You did not decide this day. In a very real sense, you know that it came as a gift to be received and treasured but never taken for granted.”
The late Irma Bombeck catches the spirit of the gift we are to one another. “Raising a family wasn’t something I put on my resume, but I have to ask myself, would I apply for the same job again? It was hard work. It was a lot of crud detail. It was steady. Lord, it was steady. But in retrospect, no matter what deeds my life yielded … no matter how many books I had written, marched in a row on a library shelf, no matter how many printed words of mine dangled under the magnets on refrigerator doors, I had done something rather extraordinary with my life as a mother. For three decades, I had been a matriarch of my own family, bonding them together, waiting for stragglers to grow up, catch up, or make up, mending verbal fences, adding a little glue for cohesion here, patching up a few harsh exchanges there, and daily dispensing a potion of loyalty to something bigger than all of us.
“My husband found me sitting in the living room and asked, ‘What are you doing sitting here alone in the dark?’ ‘Thinking about this weekend.’ ‘They’re good kids,’ he said reassuringly as he sat beside me. I rested my head on his shoulder. The room was getting chilly. A car went by and its lights illuminated the room, then threw it again into darkness. I thought about the kids again and hoped with all my heart that they would someday aspire, as I did, to the gift of a family of their own and a living room that no one ever sat in.”
Our relationships are the gift of grace we pass between us in order that we may truly live. Without one another, we die. Our hearts first of all. This is what the church over the centuries has called “common grace,” the grace in our presence to one another which, however imperfect and inadequate, is a reflection of the grace of God, which makes life worth the living, which is at least our salvation here.
A twenty-seven-year-old writes this poignant piece to a newspaper columnist. “We all had promising futures and financial security, but we lacked one thing-the ability to relate to others. I stopped wanting to kill myself when I realized my death would make a difference. That somebody really cared. If people want to help, they can. Here are a few things everyone can do: Smile more – even to people you don’t know. Touch people. Look them in the eye. Let them know you are aware they exist. Be concerned about those you work with. Listen when they speak to you. Spend an extra minute. If someone has a problem, just listening means more than you’ll ever know.”
A Manhattan TV personality tells of a woman she often met at the grocery store. “Her dark eyes were alert and eager, and always when she saw me she chattered away. Sometimes, busy with my own thoughts, I had to curb my impatience. ‘I’ll be going to Arkansas soon,’ she said one day. ‘The hot springs there are good for my arthritis. But I’ll be back before you miss me.’ For the first time, I noticed that her fingers were stiff and bent. ‘Will you go by yourself?’ I asked. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said ‘I’ve been a widow for a long time. But I’ve found a lot of nice people like you along the way to talk with.’ All at once I felt guilty. She was so cheerful — not the least bit sorry for yourself. She simply brightened her quiet life by having conversations with people wherever she went. All she wanted were listening ears. Suddenly mine were more available.
But how do we sustain a whole-hearted embrace of life no matter what it throws at us. How do we sustain the grace to give ourselves to one another no matter the burden that may at times be.
There are days when we don’t much want to live. There are days when we are not really there for one another.
Our faith insists that the courage to hang in there with life, the patience to stay with one another rests in the gift of our relationship with God, the gift that comes to us in the face and presence of Jesus who is always there for us. Only as we are open to and nurture that gift, that grace, that relationship, are we able to sustain our embrace of life and one another. If there is one thing this old book insists upon, it is this: no matter our struggle with life and one another, God is always there for us and as we reach out to him there comes the gift of grace, the forgiveness and strength to get up and go at it again.
There is a marvelous testimony in a little book I treasure called Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus. Andre is above all a “Broken Vessel,” having undergone divorce, estrangement for a time from his children, having lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident, but a broken vessel who discovered that God never quits, never gives up, is always there as he promises.
In a charming little vignette he tells how he began to appreciate the iron character of the love of God. He writes, “Christ called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, …we were sweet lovable sheep. ”
Then he tells how his first year in New England, he and his wife lived in a very old house in southern New Hampshire. As part of the rent they agreed to take care of three dogs, eight sheep, large ewes, and a bed of roses. The sheep were enclosed by a high fence in a large section of the meadow. “All we had to do about them was to make sure they didn’t get through the fence, which finally meant that when they got through, we had to catch them and put them back in the pasture. This was my first encounter with real sheep.”
“One would find a hole in the fence, slip out, then circle the pasture, trying to get back in. The others watched her. Someone in our family would shout the alarm, and we’d all go outside to chase her. At first we tried herding the ewe back toward the hole in the fence, standing in the path of this bolting creature, trying to angle her back, as we closed the circle six of us made, closed it tighter until she was backed against the fence and the hole she was trying to find. But she never went back through the hole, never saw it. Finally we gave up, simply chased her over the lawn, around the swimming pool, under trees and through underbrush until one of us got close enough, dived, and tackled. Then three of us would lift her and drop her over the fence, and we’d get some wire and repair the hole. For a while this was fun, but soon our tackling was angry, and some of us punched her in the jaw … after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw that Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We are stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we can foolishly destroy ourselves… And now I knew what he meant when he said that the Good Shepherd truly cares for his sheep.”
Then near the end of his account, Andre speaks to his God.
“Today I have not wanted my earthly life to end, have not wanted to confront you with anger and despair. I receive you in the Eucharist, and look at you on the cross, but mostly I watch the priest, and the old deacon, a widower, who brings me the Eucharist in my wheelchair, and the people who walk past me to receive; and I know they have all endured their own agony, and prevailed in their own way, though not alone but drawing their hope and strength from those they love, those who love them; and from you, in the sometimes tactile, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes seemingly lethal way that you give. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me, but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life remains. But no one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life without people or God… without love itself.”
“How immense are the resources of his grace, how great his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. His handiwork, created for the life of good for which God has designed us.
Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.