I have long been infatuated with the idea of grace. Although I don’t identify as a Christian, for me Christianity is a philosophy that helps us think about how to live. Grace can, I think, be a secular concept. I’ve struggled to define grace for myself. Karma implies something earned, while grace is unearned, a gift, but somehow broader and deeper than luck. I think we can make ourselves open to grace, which maybe means we do earn it, but not through good works, like karma. Nadia Bolz-Weber says her spirituality is not about “spiritual practices or disciplines, admirable as those things can be. They are born in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace.”
Community, work, giving and receiving. Mandated grace. You know, like ordinary virtues. These are some ways grace seems to find me.
Gratitude. I’ve lived in one of the world’s most beautiful places, northern Michigan, for 20 years. At times I’ve taken it for granted. On trips to Traverse City, I might spend the day in prosaic activities like meetings and shopping and never notice the poetry on Grand Traverse Bay. “While we can be delighted by small measures of grace, we can also take for granted their value, and resign ourselves to the rudeness of life without them.” (Bill Stumpf) Now I make a point of saying hello to the bay when I’m in town, grateful that I can see the Best Great Lake Ever whenever it strikes me. (I talk to my trees with gratitude too.)
Love. Krista Tippett talks about one type of love as a common good, a public good rather than a private love. My friend Pete boils grace down to the Golden Rule, same thing as the common good in my book. I am becoming a fan of Georgia Congressman John Lewis. He was a leader in the civil rights movement, and like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., embraced his persecutors with love. “Suffering… can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an open and accepting heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering. … We are talking about love here. … a broader, deeper, more encompassing love… that recognizes the spark of the divine in all of us.”
The love of partners, family, friends, and dogs carries another, deeper kind of grace, because it’s personal. The unexpected tender word or touch. The miracle of a new baby. A smile on a dog (shout out to Edie Brickell). A first kiss. Good company for dinner outside on a summer day. Good conversation. “We turn toward love like sunflowers, and then the human parts kick in. This seems to me the only real problem, the human parts – the body, for instance, and the mind.” (Anne Lamott) The human parts are part of the package, and grace comes even during the problem times. Brilliant Son and I recently had a wonderful conversation about a New York Times story of a man who planned and went to his wake to say goodbye to his friends and family before leaving the world on his terms, through physician-assisted suicide. Grace for the dying man, and grace to have this conversation.
Lewis says love is a way of action. All that you do, do with love, said Paul to the Corinthians. (Modern translations say love, but in the old school King James Version, it is translated as charity, from the Greek charite, instead of love.) So I work to be kind instead of judgmental, to love generously, and to remember in moments of exasperation to have an open and accepting heart. And then I work some more.
Not hitting back. When I’ve read about forgiveness, it’s about not letting wrongs done to us eat us up. Just let it go. I think this is too small an idea. I really struggle with forgiveness. Anne Lamott says “Left to my own devices, I’m a forgiveness denier – I’ll start to think that there are hurts so deep that nothing can heal them.” I want forgiveness to be earned with remorse, humility; this is also part of Christian orthodoxy, where forgiveness follows a repentant sinner. What happens when there’s no remorse? It’s easy to forgive little stuff. Over time, even the big stuff is eventually crowded out by other junk. Natalie Merchant sings, “I might forget you but not forgive.” I like what Anne Lamott says: “Forgiveness just means it finally becomes unimportant for you to hit back.” She implies healing resulting from the passage of time, but this feels like a choice, not just a casualty of years. When I was really thinking about forgiveness, Desmond Tutu’s writing, including about truth and reconciliation in South Africa, spoke to me… but I didn’t keep it. Now I’m just grateful that I have so little to forgive.
Joy. I decided years ago that I wanted to be joyful. This is a choice, in many ways. It is choosing to be positive instead of cynical, looking for delight, not settling for contentment, watching for small moments of grace. Mostly, it is active. An African proverb also from John Lewis says, when you pray, move your feet. Don’t wait for joy to come to you. Yogi Berra said you can observe a lot by watching, and much of my day-to-day joy comes from just being more watchful, asking questions, engaging. Years ago I was walking on the path beside Lake Cadillac and a young man on rollerblades pushing a very old woman in a wheelchair passed me. She was so tiny and old she looked like a dried-up twig. She was leaning forward slightly, gripping the arms of the wheelchair, and the expression on her face was joy with a little bit of terror. I still smile when I remember this moment – I was moving my feet and watching, and found joy.
My favorite Republican (and this is a very short list), David Brooks, said the experience of grace makes your soul swell up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness. I have a charmed life and grace has much to do with it. Grace feeds the souls of us non-believers too. What is grace to you? What idea have I missed?
Bonus material: Aretha’s Amazing Grace. Because of course.
All the photos in this post are courtesy of Kristina Lishawa, who has a great gift for watching. Most of the photos here are for sale through her website, and you can see more of her work or get in touch with Kristina on her Facebook page. Thank you, Kristina.
Here are the references for the quotes above. All recommended reading or listening.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People
David Brooks, interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being, 10/20/16
Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
Natalie Merchant, “Seven Years,” from her record Tigerlily
Bill Stumpf, The Ice Castle that Melted Away
Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
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#ordinaryvirtues #grace #joy #forgiveness #gratitude #love