G is for Grace
In high school, I used to get up early some Saturdays to serve breakfast to the homeless downtown. I didn’t do it because I was generous with my time or particularly engaged with social justice. I did it because there was a guy who went every week with dark hair. He played the guitar.
When I could, I would volunteer to flip pancakes on the large flat grill in the kitchen with him. We would talk and laugh and make enough pancakes to feed everyone who came through the doors. After everyone had left, we would all squirt each other with the dishwashing nozzles as we cleaned. By then, the light was pouring in through the windows and it was a little quieter so I could hear the music playing through the sound system. This was in the days when Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” was topping the Christian charts and I would hum along as I retrieved pitchers of syrup from the tables. I've never hear that song without returning, mentally, to that place.
Maybe you know the words?
Hallelujah, grace like rain falls down on me/hallelujah all my stains are washed away, washed away.
Those words mingled with the classic ones from Amazing Grace, sped up and set to a beat. Todd has a deep, gravely voice that brought gravitas to the song. I could feel the grace falling heavily like rain in late fall, soaking the layers of leaves.
Before this youth group and my volunteerism as a flirting technique, I went weekly to an AWANA meeting. This was sort of cross between youth group and scouts. I would memorize Bible verses and then recite them to the AWANA missionary (I’m still not sure how I got away with this, since I remember having a regular leader to whom my other group members said their verses). My goal was always to receive two little letters “W” and “P” next to her initials. They stood for “word perfect” and they meant that I had nailed my memorization.
I found a lot of personal fulfillment in achieving perfection week after week. I collected my candy and the other external markers of success (mostly manifesting in tiny metal ornaments to be affixed to my uniform), but above all I loved the glow that came with knowing that I had maxed out my memorization and hit every word just right. I loved knowing that I couldn’t have done better and neither could anyone else.
In AWANA I learned this definition of grace: “God giving us a free gift we don’t deserve.” This was, coincidentally, around the same time I became aware of “free gifts with purchase,” complete with a healthy skepticism for such offers. It’s hard to know why certain thoughts and ideas stick in your mind. What I know now is that I believed that grace was free, a gift of God, but I’d better work pretty hard just in case.
In high school youth groups I sang songs about Jesus being the only one that I could live for while pining away after lovely yet unavailable boys who seemed to be actually living those words out (almost exclusively musicians).
There was one song in particular called “All Day” which included the line: “I will read my Bible and pray, I will follow You all day.” These lyrics heaped a spiritual to-do list on my shoulders while also making it impossible to squeeze in a romantic relationship, or so it seemed.
Long after college, I found my way to a Lutheran church in my hometown. I soon discovered that Lutherans are big on grace (and potlucks). It was here that I began to unpack some of my grace baggage.
I sat down with my pastor and told her about the ways I’d tried to ensure that grace went through. “If it’s anything you’re doing, at all, it’s not grace,” she said. She did not tell me that I was word perfect.
Later, she reads me a poem by Wendell Berry which I file away in the new mental folders I'm assigning to grace.
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
"X" by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir.
I’m still working on getting rid of those little metal signs of perfection. I mean that metaphorically, but recently, my mom found my old uniform with all of the little pins and pieces. I couldn’t quite bear to part with it, even though it makes me sad to think about that little girl who thought she was God’s gift with purchase.
More than anything, I wanted to deserve grace. There are parts of me that still want this more than words can say. I want to hold on to the days when perfection seemed attainable. But it wasn’t of course. I might have been nailing my memory verses, but I was still doing it on my own steam, feeling grace fall like a heavy, sopping rain. I left God out of it and I broke my own heart in the process. Each day, I pray for healing.
This post is the seventh installment of a new series I'm beginning, one for each letter of the alphabet. These posts will be in order, about whatever strikes my fancy, posted each Monday.
To read "A is for Aravis" click here.
To read "B is for Bacon" click here.
To read "C is for Cake" click here.
To read "D is for Depression" click here.
To read "E is for Email" click here.
To read "F is for Finally" click here.