I've been thinking about grace a lot lately, maybe because its something we all so desperately need. Sometimes I feel invincible, like I can do no wrong. More often, I feel very vulnerable and weak. One of my stumblings is my need to feel that I have to be incredible to do good. That I have to be the best, 10,000 hours worth of best, in order to be successful or even worthwhile in my field, in my church calling, and in my life general. I agonize over past mistakes. Worry that I'm judged only by the times I've been less than I should have been. This goes way back.
I played a lot of baseball growing up. Baseball is an incredibly tense sport. Although a team sport, there's not a lot of teamwork involved. Its a lot of individual performances summed up together to get to the final score. You're either in the batter's box, just you against the pitcher. Or you're in the field, just waiting until the ball is hit in your direction. And when the ball is hit in your direction, nobody else is stepping in your place. All eyes are on you to see if you will come through for the team.
I played high school baseball, two years worth. I was on the freshman and JV team before I just couldn't take it anymore. That freshman season was the most poignant for me. I was a tiny kid as a freshman, 5'1'', 101 pounds. I was on the team, but I didn't play a lot. But I played some. I batted .400 for the year, I was 2 for 5, with a double and a single. I also had a lot of walks I remember. I probably would have played more, but I just couldn't cut it in the field. I played second base. Our coach liked me, I remember, but he had a nasty temper. Whenever a mistake was made, he would curse, throw his hat, kick his feet. I just was not mentally tough enough to take it. I would be out there, praying that a hit would not come my way. But when you are afraid you will make a mistake, you probably will, and I did. I would drop easy balls thrown over to me on double play attempt. I would muff a throws to first base, or fail to field the grounder hit to me.
I was much better than that, but I invariably played far below my ability. I was afraid of the consequences of failure.
Not too long ago, I heard this very simple story as part of an episode of "This American Life" that just stuck with me. You know, I've heard so many stories from that show that I've loved. Its one of the best things around, I tell you, and its free. I pay good money for stuff I would give up gladly for the chance to listen to "This American Life" every week.
The episode is hereand the segment is entitled "Take My Bike... Please". The narrator of the story talks about his experience as a 12 year old kid in Tucson, AZ when his dad bought him a new bike, which for him meant a new found mobility and sense of freedom. When he got the bike, he was allowed to bike it home with his brother who waked along beside him, but was told to bike straight home because they did not yet have a lock.
Well, of course, kids being kids, they stopped at a convenient store to play video games. One boy would watch the bike while the other boy played. But eventually, the game got too exciting, they neglected to watch the bike. When they finished the game, finally, they go outside and the bike was missing. They were horrified. They cried, and in silence, they walked home. He felt awful. He was trusted with a gift at great expense, and he failed. "The one time I stepped outside the lines, the worst kind of calamity happened". They walked inside the house, terrified to face his dad. When he came in, his dad said, "I brought your bike home, its in the back." He decided to teach his son a lesson, to simulate the theft.
Later, the dad and the son talked about the experience.
The experienced bothered the dad. He felt he overdid it, ruined the experience for his son. That it took away the pleasure of getting the bike. It should have been a fun and exciting day, but it was a black cloud.
But his son had a different perspective. But here's the poignant thing he said:
"After that happened, I felt safe. Safer than I had before. And that I realized that even if you screw up, sometimes you get a chance, that its not over. That you get second chances in life even when you can't possibly imagine how it could happen."
He learned the exact opposite of what his dad was trying to teach him. That the world was not safe, but he learned that yes it is, but he learned both things: "Be careful, and sometimes you do get a second chance."
When his dad heard this from his son, he felt the same way. In his dad's words: "I'm feeling just as you felt, safer. I'm feeling the same kind of grace, you see, towards me." He felt like he did something that was a screw up, but it actually wasn't. He got a second chance.
And the world can be harsh, cruel, unforgiving. Our six year old gets diabetes for no obvious reason. No matter how we seem to try to accomplish something, we just can't seem to accomplish it, while we watch someone else do the same thing seemingly without breaking a sweat. Or we lose a job, are unemployed for months, unable to find another one.
But the world can also be beautiful and forgiving. The other day, my wife took the van out for a drive. She closed our garage door, but didn't realize a tricycle was underneath the door preventing it from closing. Also, the door to our house from the garage was unlocked. She was gone a couple of hours our garage door completely unopened. She returned with nothing stolen.
More poignantly, this evening we attended our son's Joy School graduation. My wife and a few of her friends with children roughly the same age, for the past nine months organized this cooperative pre-school program, and tonight they pulled together this really cool graduation at our church building, including a dinner. After the dinner, the kids ran around the gym in our church (including the stage). Well, for some strange reason, our little, sweet boy (who is a huge for his four year old age) was on the stage playing with the other kids. He decided to push a little girl who is half his size. I didn't see it, but I'm speculating that under normal conditions, the push would have been reasonably benign. But this was not a normal condition, the little girl was standing on the edge of the stage, and the push caused her to flip around landing on her forehead almost four feet below. Her dad picked her up screaming taking her into a room to comfort.
Our son, at first just kind of stood there. I'm not sure the details exactly because I was immersed in some conversation about the political history of Chile at the time (or some such thing) and was in the hallway I think. And it took me a bit of time to figure out the full story. I finally confronted our son. At first he was angry, but then he was really sad. I literally held him for the next 30 minutes while he cried, refusing to talk to anybody, burying his head into my shoulder. The whole thing was so sad.
I felt sick that my little boy pushed a little girl off a stage four feet (roughly) off the ground. I'm not a doctor, but I'm guessing a fall like that could have been fatal. But it wasn't. After twenty minutes or so, she was back playing. Her parents are going to watch her tonight to make sure she's ok. We have said our prayers for her and hope for the best.
But things like this happen. No matter how good of parents we'll try to be, inevitably our own kids will make mistakes, causing pain.
For a year I was young men's president in our congregation, working with the youth. I had such high ambition, but my ability was nearly as high as my ambition, and I have a lot of regrets from that year. I was also a valley big brother a while back. I've had many friends come and go in my life. Now I'm a husband and father. I can say with confidence, I've always tried to be good in every possible way, but more often than not I've not met my own expectations, and have not met other people's expectations of me. And when I focus on things like that, it makes me really sad.
But, turning the tables on this one hundred and eighty degrees. Aren't there people in this world thinking of me in this exact same way. Maybe a youth leader who worked with me when I was young. Or my parents, or sisters, or colleagues. Maybe there were times they did something hurtful to me. Maybe they have regrets. What is my responsibility in all of that.
I guess what I'm getting at is that we are so desperate for grace. We want to believe that the impacts of our mistakes will be blunted, and that the impact of the good we do will be magnified. We want other people to understand us, appreciate us for what we do for them, look past our failings. And in ways I do not understand, I think that's the point of the Savior's ultimate sacrifice. When we think if grace in religious terms, we think of the suffering and death of Jesus, and we think of the resurrection. Nobody else suffered like He did, but in his suffering He overcame. Not even His death was permanent. He overcame all.
And I play a part in that. My parents made plenty of mistakes in the way they raised me. But its grace both for me and for them, that allows me to rise above that and succeed in life despite them and because of them. The impact of their mistakes have been blunted, but what they did do for me, their unconditional love for me, if I can focus on that allow that to work in me, the good is expanded.
My son made a mistake tonight. But if all goes as expected, the little girl will suffer no ill effects. His moment of weakness (and our moment of neglect - we should have been more attentive to kids rough housing on a stage) will have no lasting effects, it will be blunted.
And as we go through life, we brush up against other people all the time. Sometimes in a moment of weakness, things are said, feelings are hurt. Grace allows us to grow thick skin, think the best of someone else, allow another's goodness to affect us while preventing another's badness from bringing us down.
This isn't perfectly so. My daughter still has diabetes and probably will all of her life (though maybe not) despite the fact that we pray for a cure every single time we pray (at her request). But grace allows us to endure this trial with, yes, grace, and grace will allow her to thrive despite the illness.
Of course, grace doesn't prevent all misfortune. Sometimes our mistakes cause harm and there might not be a lot we can do about it. But I think grace allows us to thrive and grow despite the setbacks.
So, my goal is to open myself up to grace, to be more forgiving to have more faith that my little contributions in the world matter to someone. Because with grace, my weaknesses can be blunted, and my little contributions can be expanded to bless lives. And likewise, I will try harder to allow another person's goodness to bless my life, and blunt another's misdeeds. Because grace is a two-way street.