God's First Name (Grace Encountered, Part 1)

Prodigal Son, by Kristi Valiant, used with permission

Today we are kicking off a year on Grace, immersing ourselves in stories of grace, to try to understand it from the inside and live in it more readily.   
It’s important to say right off the bat, that there is no way to talk about grace as information. That is like trying to talk about love as a thing, apart from a relationship that holds and expresses it. Love is not a concept or commodity, it is a mother tending a sick child, a brother celebrating his sister’s accomplishment with a life-long inside joke, a husband gently washing his dying wife’s tired limbs, two lovers gazing into each other’s eyes and feeling the depths of their beloved’s soul.  
When you are inside of love, you are completely oriented toward another, and simultaneously completely yourself, and also completely connected with something transcendent and beyond.
Grace is like this. It can’t be taught or grasped, it can only be felt, experienced, known with our deep body, heart and mind in unison kind of knowing, and not just our head-only kind of knowing.

Richard Rohr says, “Basically, grace is God’s first name, and probably last too.  Grace is what God does to keep all things he has made in love and alive – forever. Grace is God’s official job description. Grace is not something God gives; grace is who God is.  If we are to believe the primary witnesses, an unexplainable goodness is at work in the universe. (Some of us call the Phenomenon God, but that word is not necessary. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way of the experience because too many of us have named God something other than Grace).” 
(from Immortal Diamond).

God is a relationship of giving and receiving, one in three persons in freedom bound to each other in generosity and self-emptying love.  God is the mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings, the Father who runs to the wayward son, the Jesus who came in weakness into the womb and arms and care of those he made, to share our humanity completely from the inside. God let the very worst possible thing that could ever be conceived of happen – for the creatures to kill their Creator; the Almighty Source of all being submitted to non-being, death itself, and rendered it powerless to separate us from God. God is the Spirit who hovers over the waters at creation and breathes life, comfort and inspiration into the creatures made in God’s own image, and intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words, carrying our grief and losses into the very heart of God when we pray.

Jesus spoke scandalously of grace all the time, which is to say, Jesus revealed the outrageous essence of God, and maybe nowhere more poignantly than in his parable of the Prodigal Son.

If life is reward and punishment, earning and deserving, then the older son is the one who should receive the party, the inheritance, the Father’s devotion.  Not the son who squandered everything and threw away Dad’s fortune.  Not the one who got what he most certainly deserved, when he came to in the pigpen. 
He had it all and threw it away. 
Those were the natural consequences of his behaviors. 

But this Father, he goes against all sense.  
He is not angry with the son, not disappointed in him and eager to teach him a lesson. No.  Rather, everyday, he goes out from his house to watch the road for his boy.  It’s the first thing he does when he wakes up. It’s where he spends his lunches.  It’s the final walk down the lane before bed, eyes peeled to the horizon as the light fades.  And when he can’t be there he posts servants to keep an eye out.  He tells the neighbors to alert him if they see the boy coming.  He longs with all his heart that his beloved child return to him.  
And when the child does come home, filthy and limping, the Father sees him a speck in the distance, and he drops his dignity and lifts his robes and runs full bore to sweep up this child in his arms.  
And this son, who left high on life, no doubt with some parting witty shots, and his half of the his Father’s entire estate’s inheritance weighing down his bag… this son who partied hard and wasted it all, who woke up in vomit and shame more times than he can count, who slunk through dark streets, and used and discarded desperate women, and robbed people at knifepoint, and found what he’d later call in AA his “rock bottom,” propped up in a pig pen with rotten food in his hand… this son, who is too ashamed to look his Dad in the eye, gets the wind knocked out of him by the enthusiasm of his father’s embrace, and tries to stammer out his prepared speech, the one he’d practiced the whole long way home, the one about how he didn’t deserve to be a son and would his dad consider taking him in as a hired hand?  
But he barely gets three words out before the Father has kissed his grimy cheeks, hoisted him onto one arm and walked him back to the house, tears streaming down his own cheeks in joy, shouting orders to the staff, “Prepare the bath! Lay out my best clothes for him and don’t forget my grandpa’s ring, the family heirloom! Break open the bottle we were saving for the finest celebration! Everyone must come and feast! My son was dead and now he lives! He was lost and now he is found!” 

Prodigal Son, by Charlie Mackesy
(check out his other work - including stunning sculptures) of this story.
This is grace.  
It’s not something God does; it’s who God is.  
God can’t not embrace and love us no matter what. 
Grace is not just the opposite of earning and deserving, or a different language, it’s a completely different universe– it’s the way of God instead of the way of fear.  
It’s lost being found and dead made alive.  

Grace is not medicine that fixes the badness in us; it’s the preexisting connection between us and God that never ends.  And it’s available to us right now.  
My beloved professor Ray Anderson used to say, There is no authentic humanity except that summoned forth by the creative divine Word itself. There is no human existence which first of all is in a state of anxiety, indecision or dread before it can realize its own possibilities of response and faith. 
Our most true and fundamental humanity is of rest, not unrest. It is connected to God, not estranged from God.  Disorder is a disruption of what is already the case.  We don’t imagine that people start out sick, and only achieve health from the cure.  Sickness is a distortion of health- we start healthy and then something makes us sick, and the cure restores us to health.  
So it is with grace.

We were made in grace, God’s being spilled over to be shared with us, drawing us from the very beginning into relationship with God.  Our very most true and deepest self already knows being loved and claimed by God.  This reality is already ours; it is the gift we have been given with our very existence – we belong to God.  

The older son is living in the Father’s grace. 
He is right there, in the household, all needs met, all belonging complete.   
At any moment he could let the joy of being loved and claimed as beloved son wash over him. 
At any moment he could rest in gratitude, welcome contentment. 
But he’s been a good boy and he knows it. 
And those of us who live close to the Father are most at risk of this – believing it is our own goodness that got us here, believing somehow we made this happen. He still has enough dignity and enough false sense of his own worthiness or favoritism, that he is incapable of receiving the gift.  His belief that he is qualified to earn something that is unearnable, means, paradoxically, that that he can never receive the very thing he is craving and working for most – the love of the Father.  Because that love is free. It is not earned.  It’s already his, and yet, he cannot feel it, cannot accept his acceptance. 

We can reject God’s grace one of two ways.  
Like the younger son we can run from it and immerse ourselves in things that actively kill our souls and cut us off from our belonging to others, ourselves and God.  
Or like the older son we can stand right inside of it and think it doesn’t exist. We can prop up our souls up to impress God and others, to be as good kind and obedient and successful as we can be, insisting on paying our way and refusing to accept the free gift that is already ours.

Then to come face to face with grace feels like death.  
It is painful and unpleasant and most unwelcome, because it looks at everything we’ve done and all we’ve though we earned and all that makes us worthy, and it considers it pointless, throws the party instead for the reckless deviant who finally came home.  
But when grace makes us alive, it reorients our being to our source, it brings us back to the true reality, it wakes us up from the stupor and gives us eyes to see through grace’s lens- that is, with gratitude and hope, for all is gift, and all belong, and God is holding it all.  
This sounds like crazy talk if you haven’t been seized by grace, if you haven’t succumbed to its soul-transformation.  It makes no sense unless you’ve gone through death and come out the other side.  

At any and every moment God has already restored us to our orientation toward the Source of our life, and we can receive this reality into ourselves.  
But to receive it means to let go of whatever we are orienting ourselves toward instead – our own self-interests and self-preservation, righteous anger or longing for revenge, the isolation or blame that makes the people around us into competition instead of companions, grasping for meaning apart from the ground of our being.  
All the things that make us feel safe and strong and secure and worthy, they must disappear – they are the illness, the sin, if you will, that distorts our true life. But nobody, or at least, not most people I know, willingly give those things up, certainly I know I wouldn’t. 

Would you willingly give up security?  Stability? The ability to trust in your own good health, or reliable mind, or excellent track record, or reputation in the world?  
And so we are rarely ready to receive grace until suffering meets us.  

Until we are freed against our will from something that we depend on for what we thought was our life, we are not likely grateful for grace or even able to see it at work, which is another way of saying, we don’t really need or recognize God.  It is often only when what we thought was our life disappears, and these deaths happen to everyone all the time, it is only in death that we are ready to discover and receive again what truly is our life- our deep and abiding and unshakable belonging to God and to all others.

Then receiving grace doesn’t mean that on this side of eternity we can stay in this blissful awareness of God at all times, or even most times. It means we brush up against it and taste it, and have patience with ourselves when we bounce between the way of fear and the way of God. We eventually recognize when we’re killing our souls or propping them up, and fall back into the grace that holds us, turning our face back toward the one that made us, falling back into the arms that will always catch us when we stagger home.

And once we do, oh, how we long to live in God’s grace! 
Once we do, how great is the joy of participation! 
Because it’s the awareness that all of life is a gift, 
that we ourselves are a gift to others, 
that each experience- the painful ones included- turn out to be gift. 
It’s the consciousness that there is deeper truth and greater hope and stronger love, that can only be received in vulnerability and weakness.  
Grace makes us awake to life, 
and brave to love, 
and able to forgive, 
and willing to sacrifice, 
and free from shame and fear, 
and quick to joy 
and receptive to peace. 
And so we long for the grace of God, for it is the face of God.  

Grace is here right now, because God is here right now. 
So I invite you to pray with me.  
And we’re going to do this first by quieting our hearts, relaxing our foreheads and faces, unclenching our minds, opening our stomachs and filling our bodies with air.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  
Feeling our seats underneath us and the floor beneath us, our breath in and out and the people beside us, we are present here now, God, where you already are, waiting for us to show up.  And we sit in your presence now, and wait until we feel a sense of your Spirit with us.  

As you sit in the presence of God, if you’d like to pray along with me, let your spirit say these words after I do:

Make me vulnerable, God. Make me open to you.
Take away the things that that are killing me, 
and knock over the things that are propping me up, 
remove all obstacles preventing me from receiving your love and welcoming your grace.  Where I am lost, Lord, find me. 
Shake me out of unrest that I may return to rest. 
free from estrangement that I may be connected once again.
Return me to core of my being that knows what it is to be loved and known by You. 
Reorient me to the Source of my life, that I may be fully alive. 
Summon me back into the hope that does not disappoint, 
and immerse me in your love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

( follow-up installments in this series can be found here for Part 2, and here for Part 3).

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