Sometimes, words or ideas come into my life...and then they keep coming into my life until I figure them out, or I write about them, or I get what it is they're telling me.
Lately, the word in question is "grace."
It has come up in my reading, in conversation, in thoughts...and I wasn't even totally sure I knew the definition of it. I had a general sense of what it meant, but I was still kinda unclear. Even when I thought I knew what it meant, I still couldn't completely wrap my head around it. What is it, actually?
Anne Lamott writes a good deal about grace. She 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.” She also says, "Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking." And also: “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks."
Quite honestly, I read that and I think, 'Thanks, Anne. That's super. Now what the hell is it and why can't I find any?' I mean, seriously. I could use some water wings right now. I could use a little mountain air...but neither one appears to be too forthcoming at the moment. And that mystery she refers to? Anywhere I'm going, I'm getting there myself. Not so much happening on the mystery front here, Anne. Not so much.
The dictionary definition of grace didn't carry me much further. Google's definition provided me with this gem: "(in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings."
Further reading on Wikipedia (this is hardcore research, y'all!) landed me this: "grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as "the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it"...a spontaneous gift from God to man - "generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved..."
And, honestly, I read those definitions and I think, 'Thanks Life. That's super. Make me obsessed with understanding a word relating to a God I don't believe in, linked inextricably with beliefs of sin and salvation that are not even remotely close to fitting into my belief system. That's nice of you. Really nice of you.'
But it's been weeks now that this word has been coming up for me -- and coming up, and coming up, and so I've made myself think about it over the past few days. And, really, we're still wrestling a bit. This word and I -- we're still figuring out what it means for me. This is not a word that wants to go down easy.
The past couple weeks have been hard, and I've been struggling with a darkness and a sense of overwhelm that is hard for me to admit to and name. Mostly, in those tough moments, I struggle with a sense of feeling unworthy, and unlovable, and alone in the struggle. I feel vulnerable, and I can't quite figure out how to be with others in a way that feels right. Don't we all, at one time or another, struggle with those feelings? Don't we all, at some point, become so engaged in our heads that we manage to go round and round up there in our busy brains, convincing ourselves that we are somehow unworthy? Don't we all become self-absorbed, such that we become convinced that we are unloved and unlovable? I do. And while, in my funnier moments, I can shake my fist in the air and say "DAMN YOU SEROTONIN, WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU!?!?!" yelling at neurotransmitters doesn't make them multiply or affect their reuptake. It doesn't change all the life circumstances and goings on right now that, frankly, there just isn't enough serotonin in the world to manage it without leaning at least a little into the darkness. And that's okay. It happens. It is part of what life is, I think, and it will pass.
But I am good at going through the motions, you know? I am good at smiling, and I am good at finding the things to laugh at, and I am good at withdrawing when I can't do those things. I am good at showing up, even when I don't feel like it. I'm good at doing a good job of whatever it is I'm supposed to do a good job at, even when I don't know how I can do a good job. And the past few days...I haven't felt like it. Last night in particular, when I was lying awake because I couldn't sleep, my brain went all sorts of haywire and convinced me of things it never would have said in the daylight. I got up this morning, and the very last thing I wanted to do was go to choir practice and sing.
Okay, so maybe there were a few things that were lower on the list than singing, but as I was trying to get out the door this morning, I sure couldn't think of many. But I got there, and I faked it, and I sang, because faking it and singing is supposed to help.
And then...there was this thing that happened.
This woman, who is very dear, came to me and said, "You still haven't heard that song I want you to hear...so I made you a CD!" She handed me a CD with some songs on it that she finds beautiful and meaningful -- and my heart wiggled, just a little bit, and warmed, and the room grew lighter. Like a ribbon of mountain air, perhaps.
And then someone leaned over the seat and asked, "how's your sister? Have you heard from your sister?" "I said a prayer for her," someone else said. "I've been praying that the thing that is right for her will happen." Water wings slid onto my arms, and suddenly, I was not struggling quite so hard to breathe.
"I wanted to ask you how your teaching is going?" someone asked. "Did it go okay?" Another ribbon of mountain air.
"What can I do to help?" someone asked, when I told her things are hard...and suddenly, I knew I was not in the same place I started. Grace had found me where I was, and had moved me, surely, to somewhere new. It was absolutely a bestowal of blessings that were free and unmerited. It was love given, not because I had done anything to earn it, but just because. It was a gift that was both unexpected and undeserved.
I don't believe it was a gift given to me by God. I don't believe there was any sort of sinner salvation going on...if I was a sinner then, I am still as much of a sinner now. But there was absolutely a human grace that was afforded me today, in the moment that I needed it, in the way that I could hear it. This, then, is my definition of grace: a spontaneous gift from person to person that is generous, free, and totally unexpected. It brings breath to the places there was none, and tells us that we matter. That we belong. It comes in moments we do not expect, and it takes us to places we did not know to go. It takes us out of our heads and reminds us that, even in the dark moments, we are in community. We are worthy of being in community. Even in the dark moments, we are beings who are worthy of being in community.
These moments...they did not banish the darkness or cure the stressors or change my brain's reuptake of serotonin. But I am not where I started, and this, my friends, is grace.