Grace upon Grace
From a Starbucks near a convention center a long time ago
His name wasn’t Matt. Even if non-Matt weren’t a reader of this blog, I would have changed his name and a few details because that’s what writers and psychologists do when telling a story. We weave a little fiction into our stories in the name of compassion and ethics.
Then again, I wonder if we all do that with our stories. In a book I finished last night by one of my literary heroes—Frederick Buechner—he recalls a sermon even while observing that much of his recollection may have been the sermon he built in his head as he listened to the actual words coming from the pulpit. I think stories may be that way, too. We build one in our heads even as we live in the midst of the real one.
Then again, I wonder if we all do that with our stories.
This partly-wrong story with someone not really name Matt happened at a Starbucks in a mall near a convention center east of the Mississippi River more than 20 years ago. He and I snuck away from the sort of meetings one has at convention centers, which can be interesting or not, but hardly ever live-giving, to catch up on whatever meaningful things might have happened since his graduation.
Matt’s voice quivered as he described the pain of losing his marriage. My words failed me, as they often do, which is why I can sometimes be a pretty good listener. I remember sitting in a spacious silence, absorbing the pain of his loss however much a former professor can absorb such a thing. Eventually the conversation moved on, and Matt wanted to know about the new things happening in my life, which were pretty much like the old things he learned about as a curious and compassionate student. I talked for a few minutes about my marriage which—though not perfect—feels pretty good most days, and about my three grown and growing daughters who were (and are) finding their ways quite beautifully in this confusing world.
I looked up and noticed the tears in Matt’s eyes and heard some astounding words of grace that have reverberated for two decades: “I’m not crying out of sadness for my situation, but out of happiness for yours.” And I believed him. I still do.
Here’s where grace confuses me. I might have said something back to Matt, trite platitudinous words, such as, “I’ve done nothing to deserve such a life; it’s all just God’s grace.” But if that’s true, then where is God’s grace in Matt’s life? By claiming grace to explain a relatively easy and painless life, am I disqualifying it for the one who wakes each morning in a panic, if he is able to sleep at all, because of the profound loss life has just handed him?
Here's where grace confuses me...
This is the paragraph where I’m supposed to offer some pithy solution to the grace problem I just posed. But the thing is, I don’t have one. I don’t know that anyone does. Still, I cling to the possibility that grace shows up everywhere, in tragedy and harmony, in the hardest seasons of life and the best ones, too. Matt’s tears were grace to me, and I wonder if they may have been to him also.
We’ve lost touch, more or less, but whenever his name pops up on Facebook, I find myself praying that God is pouring out grace upon grace in Matt’s life, in all the joys and in the struggles, too. Maybe that’s the amazing thing about grace.