It was a perfect end to the day. Occupying a park bench eating ice cream in the Tivoli Gardens with my wife and in-laws brought a touch of the surreal. There we sat, four little specks in the creation’s grand design, enjoying a frozen treat in a historic garden and amusement park in Copenhagen, Denmark. It always feels like a gift to be able to explore the world’s wide spaces, whether at home or abroad. This night was no different in that regard.
We lingered a little longer than we might have because Glenn, Judi’s dad, decided he wanted a second scoop. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no such thing as too much rum and raisin ice cream. Someone approached us as we sat there, absorbed by the moment. I could feel my guard rise a tiny bit, expecting to be asked for money. Never let your assumptions write the end of a story.
As the man approached, he stretched out his hand and said directly to me, “Excuse me. Is this yours?” A good start to a ruse, I thought. An innocent, seemingly helpful question to engage me and open the conversation. Against my better judgment, I focused on the object in his hand. It was the size of a business card, with a photo in the upper left corner. It did look vaguely familiar. Turns out, it was my driver’s license! He found it on the ground over near the vendor stand where it must have fallen from my wallet when I paid for the ice cream. Lucky for me that those passing through had been caught up in their own moments rather than watching their feet.
He continued, “I looked around and saw that you match the picture on the license, so it had to be yours.” I have seen that photo, and am not sure I appreciate that observation—but the truth is what it is. Embarrassment and gratitude combined to take command of the moment. Embarrassment because I had assumed the worst based on previous experiences in public places like this; and gratitude because the loss of the license would have created any number of difficulties until it was replaced. He didn’t have to seek me out, but he did anyway.
A similar event happened in reverse one blustery winter night back home in Richmond. As I returned to my car, eager to get out of the cold, I noticed a small package with a camouflage cover laying on the ground. In the dark, it looked like trash. I retrieved it from the asphalt, intending to put it in the garbage but realized it was a wallet. When I opened it, the photo on the driver’s license was a familiar one. It belonged to an acquaintance who had once worked with me, but whom I had not seen in a few years. What are the odds of that? I drove to the address on the license and knocked on the front door. I still recall the look of surprise and joy on his face when I returned his wallet to him. In fact, he had not yet realized that it was missing. “Why did I return it?” someone asked me later. The answer is really simple: that’s what I hope they would do if the situation were reversed.
Those two memories surfaced recently while contemplating the concept of grace. Life has plenty of frustrations and hardships. On some of those occasions, others—sometimes absolute strangers—offer a generous response when none is required or expected. In the giving of that response, they make a difference. They lighten our load. They help bring resolution. They make possible what we were unable to accomplish alone. Their contribution helps restore something that was lost or absent. Their intervention uplifts our spirits as well as our condition. Its effect can vary, as can its importance; but it always contributes toward the good. There comes a point in moments like those when I become aware of something lighter entering the situation and upon acknowledging it, take a deep breath and know that I was experiencing grace. Life is definitely better with it than without it.
Moments of grace are so simple, yet getting a firm grip on the concept is like trying to hold Jell-O tightly. I find it slippery to define. It was never presented as slippery when preachers described it in sermons heard along my life’s path. Grace as God’s unmerited favor, with emphasis on the unmerited part, was the consistent message.
That was a hard pill to swallow, as the saying goes. It is not that I had or have any illusions of being entitled or perfect. I accept as true that merit is not a component of any opportunity I have to be in touch with my Creator. But the fact that it came across as though I was being judged unworthy just for being even though I had nothing to do with my arrival in this world or how I entered it always seemed unfair. It was like the deck was stacked from the beginning and there was no way to get a winning hand, thanks to God’s design of creation and my membership in the human race.
No one ever accused the Divine of begrudgingly dispensing grace, but the way it was communicated often made it sound that way. As a defense, it put me in mind of the cartoon character Popeye who, in moments of exasperation, was prone to say, “I am what I am.” Well, it sounded more like, “I yam what I yam.” Nothing like a good accent to complicate a message (Not that I’d know anything about that!). Alongside that refrain come the words from the old hymn, “Just as I Am.” In some ways the meaning is the same only one sounds like defiance and the other like submission. Somewhere between those two points we are left to contemplate if there is such a thing as grace in the world. Fortunately, grace is much more generous than some of those earlier communications implied, at least as I understand it.
The word has an interesting range of meaning. Other definitions assigned to it range widely from something like simple elegance or refinement of movement to a period allowed for a late payment of a debt. It is used to refer to a short prayer over meals or a title for royalty, as in “Your Grace.” To that I would add something like “special consideration” or “favor.” So, with those varied perspectives, I have no qualms about expanding my view of God’s grace.
Perhaps the first gift of grace is the gift of life itself. I suppose it, too, is unmerited as we did nothing to deserve it, yet here we are, given the opportunity to breathe fresh air and experience the world and each other. If we keep the idea of life as a gift of grace close to our hearts, how might that influence how we undertake to live and share our lives, I wonder?
Carl Jung reportedly said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” What he calls privilege I would call a gift of grace. We do not all get that privilege. Those of us who do may feel like we’ve worked for it or earned it, and no doubt our efforts (or lack thereof) influence how that lifetime develops. But make no mistake about it. The privilege to become who you are, particularly over a long life, is a gift of grace that has come our way. Buckets of grief throughout humanity remind us that this gift doesn’t come to all even as they were no less deserving than others.
Within that gift of life, we have occasions to encounter the Divine. We gain a sense of it in nature. We learn of it from stories of faith and family. Our own hearts call us to notice and know how God offers a conversation that will grace our lives with new revelation and insight. “Unmerited” is not the problem after all; it was more a matter of the shaming tone with which it was communicated. I think it would be better for us all if we left that tone by the roadside and kept on walking.
I have no misgivings about receiving God’s grace, even if unmerited. To lose sleep over that is to cling to the idea that I must “pay my own way.” Better to be thankful for graces, big and small, without reservation. Whether from good-intentioned strangers in the park, old acquaintances who re-enter your life at just the right time, or from the mysterious moving of the Divine whose ways defy our complete understanding, never miss an opportunity to receive a gift of grace. I think you’ll find it is even better than ice cream in the park.