Written for Voices and Silences, 2003
Grace, Giftedness, Giving and Growth – these four words, from Clif Christopher and Herb Mather’s book, Holy Smoke!, prompted me to reflect on these themes in my life. For me, they flow in a cycle, a deepening spiral, which begins and ends with God’s grace. From God’s side, it’s all grace. From the human side, our response is gratitude.
“He’s the sea that I swim in, Jesus, my Lord!” The song enveloped me and buoyed me up as a young pastor-to-be, saturating my soul. That first opportunity to serve a church had brought me to jubilant, music-filled prayer, flooding my seminary apartment with sound while I danced and knelt and sang along at the top of my voice. The music, the message, palpably surrounded me as I swam in the ocean of God’s love.
That was more than thirty years ago. It was a moment of grace – that is, of recognizing that God’s grace has been with me, with us, all along. Such glimpses are not the sum total of my experience, but they have helped power me through hellish times with congregations, in divorce, aloneness and new commitment; and through withered seasons of the soul.
I am grateful that God’s grace has nothing to do with my earning or being worthy of anything. “Grace” is another way of saying God continually chooses to relate to me in love, justice and infinite mercy. And those few, paltry moments when the veil over the Holy of Holies parts in my understanding, I am utterly overwhelmed. I am grateful.
I wonder: With all my focus on doing and accomplishing, where is God asking me to be in life and as part of creation? How are we (or are we?) becoming a faith-filled community that communicates above all God’s grace with gratitude as the hallmark of our life together?
I couldn’t lift my head or turn it even a fraction of an inch. Walking upright was out of the question. I’d lost my last bit of hearing, and the knife pains in my skull made me suspect the liquid pressure in my ears had burst both eardrums. Even hard on my ego, the paramedics had to bundle me out of our house to the ambulance in a blanket (a “burrito wrap,” they called it), as our younger neighbors looked on.
That was this March. An infection had wreaked havoc on my middle ears, giving an extreme form of vertigo. Even my doctor told me it was sheer miracle that I fully recovered from that attack with balance, hearing and energy. She’s a Christian; she knows where the miracle came from.
But I’ll tell you the greater miracle. Those frightening weeks of instant invalid status prompted my husband and me to make real caretaking and end-of-life decisions (hopefully decades off), and even to find joy in our ultimate choices. They gave me a sense of solidarity with those who are physically disabled on a more permanent basis. And in the process, I rediscovered the giftedness of life – the sheer glory of each new dawn, and the gift of God’s breath breathing in, breathing out. It was a chance to begin again, to remember the giftedness of life God has given us, as we are bathed in God’s love.
I wonder: When have I taken life, energy, mental focus, any of it, for granted? How often do I simply thank God for the opportunity to be alive (in whatever shape I’m in), to relate to others, to receive the gift of living and loving that God keeps pouring, overflowing, into my arms?
Dee Dee came forward for the offering time, carrying her mammoth Braille Bible. “I want to give back something to God and to the church,” she’d said. Dee Dee was eleven years old and had lived all her life with a rare kidney disease that had made her blind from almost infancy. Three of us in the congregation took her to dialysis each week, so her blood could be cleansed. So now she gave back to God by reading aloud to the church family her three favorite Scriptures. Our tears overflowed with joy at the greatness of her gift.
When people give like that, out of their hearts in gratitude to God, no one needs to tell them when, what or how much to give. Giving is simply the natural flow that comes out of our recognition of God’s grace and the giftedness of all that we’ve been given, whether we give our caring, time, relationships, involvement, money or things.
I wonder: When have I raced through the holy act of giving back to God, focused on how much, how often, or other less-than-ultimate concerns, when God was looking lovingly at me, ready to receive whatever I had to give? When have other people unknowingly witnessed to me by giving graciously and generously from their hearts?
When I began to do connectional work in stewardship in 1974, I thought of tithing as the floor-level standard for financial Christian giving. Later, I came to see percentage giving as an opportunity to focus on the giving, not on the gift; as a spiritual discipline or basic, practical framework to deepen our connection with God – from our side, not God’s side. Giving proportionately (whatever the percentage) can be a means of grace, if we let it prompt us to grow in our spiritual journey, gently nudged by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, it may prompt us to grow not just in our giving, but in our saving, in how we earn our income, or in the way that we use our assets and for what purposes.
More recently, I’ve preferred the Mennonite phrase, “first fruits living.” Its focus is living, not just giving. “First fruits living” is when we give to God the first and the best of everything God has given us in life, and also choose to manage and use the rest according to God’s priorities. Such living always lies beyond us, of course, but it points us back to God’s grace, and toward spiritual growth.
I wonder: When have I so focused on money or things or even on giving, when God’s grace was pointing me to something else in the bigger picture of first fruits living? Where are the signs of growth that point me back, closer to God’s grace?
So God’s choice of gracious relationship – true grace – prompts moments when we realize, however fleetingly, our giftedness. These times move us to giving, which prompts growth in our relationship with God – pointing us back, once again, to God’s grace.
And I am grateful!