By Rev. Mark L. Barden
Grace is a word often heard in the context of Chrisitianity. Yet, its deepest meaning is often overlooked and not fully applied in daily living. We can sit in church and hear sermons about it. We can discuss the concept of grace more fully in Sunday School discussions, but do we understand it enough, or better yet believe in grace enough, that we apply in the way we interact with others?
Grace may be defined as unmerited mercy, a concept that is a combination of love and forgiveness rolled into one, or some other blend of attributes that hint at its nature. Most of the time, we acknowledge grace mainly as a gift bestowed by God to us when we don’t rightly deserve it.
Let’s push the concept of grace a step further. How do we practice grace in our relationships with other human beings? How often do we offer an act of unmerited mercy when someone has made a mistake or committed an offense against us… even in the little things?
A few weeks ago, I was traveling to a retreat setting located about a four-hour drive from Charlotte. I was to arrive between one and four o’clock in the afternoon. Though I was rushed, my trusty GPS estimated I would arrive about 3:30. I don’t like to be late and with 30 minutes to spare, I was still somewhat worried. My worry was not unwarranted because about one hour from the site, the traffic slowed to a crawl. A major accident had blocked part of the highway leaving me no option but to remain in the flow and endure the pain of watching the clock tick away at the “cushion time” I had put into my travel schedule.
Interestingly, I was listening to an audio CD of a book in which the author was talking about grace and its application in daily living. I thought to myself, “I certainly hope the host at the retreat will have a little grace for me if I arrive past the registration deadline.” After I passed the site of the accident, I travelled as quickly, yet prudently, as I could to arrive on time. When I pulled up to the registration center, the clock read 4:06. I was six minutes late. So, I said a quick prayer, “Lord, may this host show me a little grace today because I did not want to be late.” When I walked through the door, a thin baldheaded man peered over his wire-rimmed glasses with a glare and said, “You must be Mark.” “Yes, I’m so sorry for being late,” I replied. “I encountered a terrible accident, which slowed me down quite a bit.” I should have known from the terse look upon his face that he was not amused and definitely was not in the mood to send much grace my way. It was confirmed with his reply. “That’s why I instructed you in the email to allow plenty of time because these things happen from time to time.” He proceeded to treat me like a first grader by showing me the map to the retreat center and asking me to point out buildings and trace my finger along the path to show how I would go from the registration building to the dorm where I would be staying. I felt like being in the principal’s office in elementary school. Sure, we all do things wrong. Often right after we do something wrong, we acknowledge it and try not to do it again. But we live in a society that seems to want to focus more on punishment than grace.
As a pastor, I encounter numerous situations in church, community and even home life, where punishment or retribution seems to characterize a reaction to someone who has done something wrong. Where’s the grace? Where’s the love and forgiveness? Where’s the unmerited mercy? It may materialize in some fashion, but often only after a time of chastisement or “rubbing one’s nose” into the situation. Later that evening, upon reflecting upon the audio CD and my experience with the host, I began to ponder how I offer grace to others, even in the simple encounters. I reflected upon John 1:11-21, particularly upon verse 16: “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” Like all gifts from God, we are gifted not for our personal well-being, but to share them with others. If God can show us grace, I believe we are called to show and share grace with others. Following this encounter, I’ve become more keenly aware of how I can offer grace-filled responses to others who have done something wrong, particularly against me. It may be simply acceptance of an apology with a smile. It could be an unmerited act of kindness. Maybe simply, listening to the person’s story. A grace-filled response certainly does more to build up a relationship and definitely is more reflective of the Christ-like way of life we are called to live.
Just try it… even in the little unexpected things. And, experience the joy that results!
Rev. Mark L. Barden is the former Director of Communications of the Western N.C. Conference of The United Methodist Church based in Charlotte, N.C. He has just been appointed to serve as pastor of First UMC in Elkin, N.C. Barden’s spouse, Barbara is Minister of Adult Education at Myers Park UMC, Charlotte.