Opening the Gift!
by Lucinda Secrest McDowell
What is that grace that literally “changed a wretch like me”? (thank you, John Newton for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace”) My own definition (from my 1996 book Amazed by Grace) is: “Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve and can never earn; mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve.”
Hardly profound. Definitely life-changing.
But grace can only change a life if the gift is received when the gift is offered. According to Ephesians 2.8-9 “by grace you are saved through faith, this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast.” If you are a follower of Christ you have been given the free (not earned) gift of grace. The question is, “Did you open that gift? Did you appropriate it in your life?” Or are you like I was for so many years, just carrying around the gift in a beautiful package but never quite embracing all it could mean for me personally? I did, eventually, though.
God’s vertical grace reached deep down into the pit of my own making and pulled me out and reminded me that striving and trying to be ‘good enough’ to earn His favor was simply not the definition of “receiving a gift.” And that, in turn, helped me totally change the way I view life and others – seeking to offer horizontal grace to those I encounter. “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you. I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking
It has been more than 20 years since my “Grace Sabbatical” (an intensive learning time between my Professor/God and me) commenced. I continue to be ever grateful for both Grace and Mercy extended to me – neither of which I deserve. I simply cannot stop speaking and writing on the transformational and redemptive character of God’s grace! And I am ever indebted to so many people along the way who have been formative on my journey — some of them in very personal ways, some of them in ways they will never know because we haven’t actually met. But isn’t that God’s economy — using our words and our stories to touch lives of people we may never know this side of heaven?
Back in the early 1990’s I happen to be at the bookstore at Mt. Hermon Conference Center in California and as I walked the aisles, a brand new book literally fell off the shelf and into my hands. It was called The Ragamuffin Gospel and it was by an author I had never heard of – Brennan Manning. I was a pretty poor clergy wife and mother of 4 young kids at the time, but one look at the subtitle “good news for the bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out” and I knew I had to buy it. Reading that book changed my life.
Brennan Manning, who called himself “Abba’s Ragamuffin,” died this weekend and I mourned and remembered him. He was, like me, a sinner saved by grace. In fact, his final book was an autobiography entitled All Is Grace. “My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request—’Please, remember me’—and assures him, ‘You bet!’…This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough…”—Brennan Manning (1934-2013)
Do you believe that Grace is enough? Enough to help you face that ‘impossible’ thing in your life? Enough to help you change – to make a 180° turn from going your own way to going God’s way? Is grace enough to give you hope and courage when everything else seems to bring despair and discouragement? Is grace that you received enough to turn you into someone who extends mercy all ‘round?
I look at my life today. Just doing it seems impossible. I am overwhelmed with lists. I am way behind in writing deadlines. I am underfinanced in what I need to cover. But I am simultaneously overcome with Gratitude for joys that abound. For gifts that keep coming to my door (not boxes, folks, the other kind of Gifts…)
I am grateful for my brilliant and beautiful daughter who was a true gift to me when she was three years old and I became her mama. And she is now, this very week, a Bride (like I was, in my early thirties) on the cusp of a whole new life. I am utterly grateful for my loving and faithful husband still by my side and still supporting my feeble attempts to live a grace-filled adventure, beginning in our home… For six amazing children (2 are new sons-in-law) who appear to still love me unconditionally, though I suspect they probably tell stories about me to their siblings behind my back. For friends and family who will descend upon our little village (130 out of towners from 22 states and 9 overseas) for the wedding weekend as they offer up blessing and legacy and many, many practical helps for us all.
I have tears in my eyes as I type this because I know I won’t “do this” wedding time perfectly, just as I didn’t “do” our other daughter’s wedding perfectly a few months ago. But I also have tears in my eyes because I know I will seek to do it with Grace and that God’s grace will cover my inadequacies, my stumbles and my mistakes. I, too, am such a ragamuffin. But I am a ragamuffin who is Greatly Loved by God.
under the mercy, Cindy
©2013 Lucinda Secrest McDowell