Saturday, February 23, 2013

Burning the Couch

"Dancing Home" by Brian Kershisnik

Grace is not a word you hear very often spoken from the pulpit in my church. I don’t know why that is. We believe in grace. Desperately and gratefully. We live in it, breathe it, swim in it, laugh through it. It anchors and elevates us. It heals us and helps us. Every day. Every hour. Grace stands at the door and knocks, leans in the doorway and smiles, sits at the dinner table after the meal has been finished, pushes back the chair and roars with laughter. Grace makes the meal. Grace is the meal.

The Book of Mormon is about as heavy and ripe with references to grace as any of the writings of Paul:

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”

“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.”

“Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.”

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

“And also my soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers; yea, my soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power, and mercy in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death.”

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

That “after all we can do” might be read two ways: grace makes up the difference and fills in the gaps; but grace also is ultimately the only means of hope, notwithstanding all we may do, we cannot save ourselves. I have long loved the LDS Bible Dictionary entry on grace. It declares that the main idea of the word is “divine means of help or strength given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ” and “It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, . . . receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power . . . . Divine grace is needed by every soul.”

Yesterday a student brought me an article from a music magazine I used to read. I would pore over the shiny pages, admiring the rockers inside. He brought it to me because it had a piece about my friends, and they mentioned me by name. It was a strange thing to see, my name in that magazine. It was an erstwhile dream come true. This one musician friend and I were the same kid growing up. Same name. Same dreams. Same background. I may have imagined it, but I felt pain in my friend’s words in the magazine, a hollowness and a sorrow. I thought about all the sorrows and griefs that sit so heavy, like dark, brooding birds of prey, on the shoulders and backs and heads of so many people who grace this planet. And an image came into my mind of my two-year-old son the night before when I put his pajamas on him. He laughed out loud and did a spin-jump, landing in a crouch. He shouted, “My very favorite pajamas!” He was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and rocketship pants and giraffe slippers. It struck me again that my life is blessed with a radiance and a warmth which seem somewhat uncommon and perhaps unfair. And I know that there is no comparing of two lives and beauty wears a thousand dresses, but I wondered why grace has struck me so.

There’s a passage in the novel Gilead in which the prodigal son character, Jack, wonders about the apparent arbitrariness of grace. He feels outside of it, immune to it, as it were. He grew up with a pastor father but he could never really believe. He seems to wish he could. He tells of going to a revival meeting: “One night a man standing just beside me, as close to me as you are, went down as if he’d been shot. When he came up again, he threw his arms around me and said, ‘My burdens are gone from me! I have become as a little child!’ I thought, If I’d been standing two feet to the left, that might have been me. I’m joking, of course, more or less. But it’s a fact that if I could have traded places with him, my whole life would be different.”

Does it seem like some lives are more grace-riddled than others, some cups overflow more abundantly? It is snowing outside my window, and I am reminded that God’s goodness and graces rain on the just and the unjust alike, without respect for persons. And yet.

For Augustine, who thrived on a grace which struck him like unmerited, holy lightning, grace is essentially God’s prerogative to do whatever He likes, to act in a boundless, incomprehensible love which may baffle and confound humanity, for all God cares.

Mormons believe that although you cannot command or control grace, you can put yourself in the pathways of grace. And grace puts you in new pathways, as well. A grace-touched life is visibly changed and charged with brightness. Grace feeds the roots and the ripening fruit is a life of holiness.

But grace is not a wage. Grace is a gift. Grace comes regardless of merit. When I was a teenager, my friends and I found a lonely-looking couch on the side of the road. We asked my mom if we could borrow the minivan, and we drove the couch down toward the marshy land near the lake. Among yawning, stretching cottonwoods, we sliced that couch up using Bert’s mom’s knives. We jumped on it and howled and threw couch pieces into the air. Then we doused it in gasoline, lit a match and stepped back, laughing. JD filmed the thing. As I recall, we were making a music video. Dallin had brought a fire extinguisher from home. When the flames were twenty feet high and licking the trees with great relish, we rushed forward with the extinguisher. We pressed down the lever and expected a spray. We were disappointed. Someone had broken the seal, and it had no pressure. The couch crackled and blazed in the dry summer heat, and I began to fear the trees would catch. A school bus drove by on the road which was just visible through the trees. A few minutes later, it drove by again, this time more slowly. We began to scramble, looking for a way to put out the fire. We grabbed a towel from the van. We whipped at the flames, but it just served to fan them higher. We tripped over weedy plants ripe with burs, scooping up mud and flinging it at the couch. We doused the towel in water and tried to wring it out over the blaze. The fire grew hotter and angrier and higher. I began to feel despair. Then we heard the sirens. My heart sank, thinking of my parents faces on finding me brought home by the police. But it wasn’t a police car. It was a fire engine. A burly fireman came trampling through the trees with an enormous fire extinguisher. He sprayed and covered the couch until it was a black, smoldering frame. The air hung heavy with smoke. The fire fighter looked at me out of the corner of his eye and said, “So. What’s going on here?” “I, uh,” I stammered, “we were just being idiots.” He smiled and said, “Well, sometimes being an idiot catches up to you.” And then he walked away. He got in his truck and drove away. We kept waiting for the fist to fall, for the police sirens. But there were none. Sometimes being an idiot catches up to you. But here’s the thing, this time it didn’t. We didn’t deserve his kindness. But he showed us mercy. The boomerang doesn’t always come back to hit you in the back of the head. Surely, this is grace.

John Ames says, “Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Praise be to God. Grace is everywhere. God walks among us, gracing.

Even the sometimes austere and righteousness-minded apostle Bruce R. McConkie understood the ubiquity of grace. He wrote, “God’s grace consists in his love, mercy, and condescension toward his children. All things that exist are manifestations of the grace of God. The creation of the earth, life itself, the atonement of Christ, the plan of salvation, kingdoms of immortal glory here after, and the supreme gift of eternal life–all these things come by the grace of him whose we are.” Everything is grace. Every single thing. A child’s eyes staring back at you in the mostly-darkness of the morning. Leaves and leaflessness. Clouds and clear skies. Hope and light and joy and forgiveness and peace and strength. The air we breathe and the lungs that drink the air. The requirement for reception of grace is ultimately reception of grace. Acknowledgement of brokenness and need, hunger and thirst—these open the floodgates of grace. The requirement is open eyes and open heart. It is open arms and an embrace. Perhaps perception is the only key to grace. To see grace is to experience grace.

Ultimately grace is a mystery. What it looks and tastes and smells like. The sound and feel of grace. Why and when and where it comes. Sometimes the distribution of graces seems unfair. But every life is a vagueness, a cloudy holiness, and as the old hymn hopefully sings, “Grace shall be as your day.” Grace will shine. Grace will always come. Ready or not. God’s grace must be sufficient for every circumstance. Each life must be filled by sufficiency. Stuffed with grace. Infinite, incomprehensible grace has a thousand thousand faces, and all of them shine like Moses’s on the mount. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, at least a thousand thousand. I like Brother Lawrence's (a French monk who spent his whole life working in the monastery kitchens) idea that even the mundane tasks of our lives can be suffused with God's love and become a touchpoint with grace. "I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done . . . I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king."