Thursday, December 17, 2015

What's in a name?

I've always wished I used my middle name more. Maybe it would calm me down, I think, if the world called me Grace, if I heard the word every day, every few minutes even. Perhaps it would make me slow my pace, treat people more graciously, treat myself more graciously.

Then again, perhaps the word would lose its meaning in the repetition, its mystery and its ability to jar. As it stands, I think about the concept of grace rarely enough that it entangles me each time, befuddles me, unsettles me. Grace never adds up. It doesn't even operate as elegantly as it sounds like it would. "Grace" is such a lovely word, so simple and, though it pains me to say it, pure. When we talk about grace, many other things of beauty tend to come up--love, compassion, forgiveness, peace. "There but for the grace of God go I" (how lucky I am!). "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" (no longer a lost wretch!). "Fall from grace" (uh-oh).

We talk a lot about what grace delivers us from: sin, bad decisions, ourselves. But what does grace deliver us to?

At church on Sunday, we sang "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." I like this song, but it usually doesn't hit me with any punch of emotion. This week the third, last verse did.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

Debt, fetters, binding, sealing--what kind of grace is this? It doesn't sound like something I'd pray for. Another, more modern lyric, comes to mind, this time from Mumford and Sons:

It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works.

Well, isn't it? Grace requires something of us, something hard. This is not to say it's not freely given because it is, at least I believe divine grace is. But it's not quite free to receive if we want to receive it fully. Grace changes us, transforms us even, and we have to welcome that change, that transformation.

What does this mean? I don't think I've ever fully welcomed grace so I'm not entirely sure, but I've caught glimpses in stories, in songs, in the occasional encounter with strangers or with God (perhaps the strangest stranger). Based on these I think that accepting grace and its effects means letting go of self-importance, of the need to control, of the illusion of independence. It means recognizing our need for grace, our inability to save ourselves from everything (from anything?).

I'm not so good at this. I like to think I'm pretty good at managing my life, or at least at convincing other people I'm good at managing my life. If that's the case, though, why would I need grace--really need it? It might sound nice, but it doesn't sound necessary. Unfortunately that's not how this grace thing works. Grace necessitates a deep, deep need for others, for love, for God, for help. As long as I don't believe I need any help, grace will probably stay a fuzzy concept for me, a part of my potential identity that I recall occasionally, wistfully, uneasily.

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