I celebrated my 57th birthday on Friday with family and a group of friends amidst garden greenery and handcrafted beer, with the meteors of Perseid streaking overhead. It was an evening of grace—which happens to be a subject we kicked around in conversation for a while. Ellen read a beautiful selection from Frederick Buechner’s “Alphabet of Grace.” Several people spoke movingly about their personal experience of grace. One friend mentioned to me as she was leaving that she’s always had a hard time accepting grace because of how she was raised. No one, it seems, is untouched by the subject. In a world that is choked with ungrace, we tend to know grace when we see it, even if we can’t adequately describe it. For a few hours that evening, grace settled in its typically intoxicating fashion upon our home.
The grace extended to me by others encourages me, in turn, to extend grace whenever I can. It builds up my spiritual coffers. There is no greater expression of grace than the gift of salvation granted by God through his son, Jesus. This is what we’re remembering when we sing Amazing Grace—perhaps the most frequently performed song of the past hundred years. I may not deserve God’s love and gift of eternal life any more than I deserve the affection of friends, yet I gratefully receive them both. I am graced by them. It’s amazing indeed that by grace we can discover reconciliation and peace in this world. By God’s power, we are given the capacity and the desire to pass grace to others.
The arrangement we have with Frances is not your typical donor-recipient relationship. In God’s economy, it’s not always clear who’s getting and who’s giving. We are all blessed when needs are met and when an individual receives care. When the chips are down, I have no hang-up personally about being on the receiving end of this kind of transaction. The Golden Rule is a divinely inspired form of social reciprocity. If we can accept grace from God, then we can learn to accept it also from his children. We are all—every one of us—worthy of this gift.
The third birthday party I want to describe occurred about three years ago as Ellen was getting to know a young Salvadoran woman in the Acorn neighborhood who had come to our English classes. Rosa (not her real name) is sweet and vulnerable, but she’s also gone through the hell of migrating to the U.S. from El Salvador—twice—where she grew up in an abusive family. She has witnessed the brutality and criminality of Salvadoran life. When Ellen learned that Rosa had never had a birthday party, she decided that it was high time she did. So on her next birthday, we arranged for her husband to keep her away from their apartment long enough that we could decorate it and get a birthday cake and snacks ready. Then, at the appointed moment, she experienced for the first time the thrilling surprise of walking into a room of friends there to celebrate her presence in the world. Rosa’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged each of us. Grace poured down upon us all.
Finally, here’s a link to a dramatic story about grace told by Christian professor and sociologist Tony Campolo. No one tells a story with more flair than this guy, a true “red-letter Christian.” Having received God’s grace, Campolo too has been made an agent of grace to people he meets, including prostitutes in a greasy-spoon café.
I tell these stories because birthdays, and other special occasions like births, deaths, weddings, and anniversaries, provide us with frequent opportunities to set grace free—without drawing a lot of attention to ourselves. Nothing spoils faster than raw meat left out in the sun and grace for which we seek credit. It’s possible to orchestrate grace, but it often just happens when we simply attempt to bring joy to others. If grace is to multiply in this world, then we should look for it, receive it, and share it, without expectation. I will never receive a better gift than simply seeing Rosa as she walked into her apartment that day, or watching Frances on Sunday as others acknowledged her life of service. The graces that Ellen and I have received through various physical challenges have, likewise, filled our hearts with gratitude. When grace comes, I believe we’re seeing through the veil into heaven. It’s like a birthday party for us all that never ends.