The scene usually proceeds as follows: the family gathers around the table for a big meal, plates full, mouths watering, stomachs hungry. Before we start to eat, we wait for someone to offer a prayer. My father is always the one leading the effort to make sure this is done. “Okay, everyone,” he’ll say, “let’s say grace. Come on now, I’ll say grace and we can all eat!” The uninitiated, and there’s always one each year, an old family friend, one of the nephew’s new girlfriends, a church guest, will bow their heads first. The rest of the family will do the same for my father’s sake. With all heads bowed, my father will clear his throat and commence to saying, what? Yep, that’s right – “Grace. Okay, let’s eat!” Everyone will laugh, the initiated most loudly, having been initiated into the Erickson holiday family meal ritual. Then someone will say a more lengthy and seemingly more substantive prayer, and the meal will begin.
Yes, this is a humorous story. But it has a deeper message when you really contemplate it.
While my father never thought so deeply about it, there can be no greater a prayer than invoking the single word Grace if invoked meaningfully. Why? Because grace points to a core spiritual principle to the spiritual life. It is our first word of two in our discussion of the basics of the spiritual life. To me, comprehending and internalizing into our hearts Grace is absolutely essential to the spiritual life.
What is grace?
Grace is something one feels, first of all. It is something we sense in our heart, that we intuit in our soul. And when we sense and intuit Grace, this is what we feel: something in the world outside our selves touches our hearts, moves our hearts, even changes our hearts despite ourselves. Grace means there is something moving in the world or through beings of the world that causes us to feel we are loved, we are embraced, we are included just because we are, not because of what we do or who we are, but just because we exist.
Now, people receive this differently, don’t they? On one extreme, if you are someone who feels they are an upstanding person, who works hard at doing the right thing, who tends to the perfectionist side of things, grace sounds like this: hey, you don’t have to try so hard. I love you just the way you are, just for being you. Be a little more vulnerable and do a little less, and just sit with me.
On the other extreme are those who’ve done wrong, who’ve made extremely bad choices, who walk with a deep sense of guilt and shame. Grace for them is here, here is a your second chance, here is a way to make amends, take a step toward me, and I will guide you on a better way.
Now, as followers of Christ, we naturally associate grace with God, a supreme being full of grace reaching out to save us. We rightly associate with grace with Christ. I think of the wondrous verse from 2 Timothy 1:
The power of God saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
Before time began, the grace of Christ was real and working and given as a gift to us.
Why is this eternal grace so important to the spiritual life? Well, from grace we get gratitude.
I have for a long time felt that the two most important words to learn in any language is hello and thank you. We make contact with hello and we make connection with thank you. So I often teach my son, especially when we go to ethnic restaurants, the word for hello and thank you in different languages. Of course, one of the first non-English words for thank you I taught him was “gracias,” the Spanish word for thank you.
Sounds a lot like grace, doesn’t it? Grace is the basis of gracias, gratitude, and gratefulness. What is the relationship? Well, I experience grace in the world, when I see the small gifts offered all around – the rain coming down from the heavens, the grass growing up from the earth, the unconditional love of parents, the power and beauty of kinship, friendship, and the kindness of strangers, the underappreciated existence of laws that govern and guide our society and point toward justice – when I see and contemplate all of life’s basic examples of grace, I can’t help but to be grateful and live in a spirit of gratitude. And when I live in a spirit of gratitude, graciousness is usually a result.
Grace begets gratitude in my heart and graciousness in my actions.
We understand grace most fully by seeing lived-out in others. One of the most vivid portraits of grace I can think of is the example of someone who, yes, was famous but from all accounts was a remarkable, remarkable human being. Now, I was bred a Baptist, and the Radical Reformation runs deep in my personal understanding. So I guess this means I am not allowed to have personal saints. But if I were to have one, this man would be it. I am referring to Mr. Rogers. Yes, Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood fame. He embodies to me a deep internalizing of grace in the world and of grace resulting in gratitude and graciousness.
There are many stories that exemplify Mr. Rogers’ graciousness. Everyday his show came on it was obvious both to children and adults. But his giving one of the most poignant award acceptance speech comes to mind. In 1997, he received the Emmy lifetime achievement award. Of course, he went to receive the award, and you can find all of this on YouTube, but he went up, accepted the award, and gave a short speech. I am going to play that short speech as we come to a close. I want you to imagine you are there in his audience in real time and are listening closely as if a kid watching him on TV, with bated breath. Now, he will ask the audience a favor, and I want you too give heed.
That is grace, gratitude, and graciousness all rolled into one.
As I finish, I ask you to do one more favor. This one not from Mr. Rogers but from this humble, ordinary pastor. Will you bow your heads, close your eyes, and take into your hearts this simplest of prayers: “Grace”...