Outrage sells news. Outrage makes you click a link, and rakes in on-line profit. We tend to click on headlines that serve up outrage more than any other type. Outrage fuels resentment. Resentment fuels more resentment.
We have enough resentment. We have enough to be outraged about. We have enough divisiveness. We have more than enough derision, bullying, and snarkery. We have plenty. We don’t need more snark. We don’t need outrage. We don’t need resentment. We don’t need walls. We don’t need registries. We don’t need bullhorns. We don’t need hate. On the flip side, we don’t need peace or love as much as we need something else. Why something else? Why not peace and love, and “all you need is love”? Because at this point, at this time, in this world, I’m pretty sure peace and love are… well, maybe just too far out of reach for right now.
What we need is grace. Can we start with just a little bit of grace?
In trying to figure out how to define grace, or how to explain this idea of grace as the thing that we need more than anything else right now, I poked around in search of what grace really means. Merriam Webster wasn’t helpful at all. I mean, not at ALL, which surprised me. Their definition doesn’t grasp even a little bit of what I mean by grace. 1) “Simple elegance or refinement of movement.” No. 2) (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Uh, I think I mean grace is a more secular way. We can’t bestow blessings on others without god or christian belief? 3)”do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one’s presence.” By one’s presence? Really? Not by one’s gifts or one’s humor or one’s talent? To do honor or credit just by showing up? What about the factor of doing whatever it is WELL. So Merriam Webster has some work to do in my opinion. Their nuance on grace is completely missing, somewhat like the grace I’m thinking of is just about almost but not quite missing in the modern world, or specifically in 2016 and 2017 in the United States.
I found an intriguing mention of grace in an ancient text after bumbling around online. I think I started from a quote, possibly, and then I searched the author and then bumped into another reference to a series of codices (ancient books) that have been translated and posted online. From the Gospel of Phillip, written somewhere around the third century, not part of the Bible, but part of a cache of ancient Gnostic texts:
“Farming in the world requires the cooperation of four elements. A harvest is gathered into the barn only as a result of the natural action of water, earth, wind and light. God’s farming likewise has four elements – faith, hope, love and knowledge. Faith is our earth, that in which we take root. And hope is the water through which we are nourished. Love is the wind through which we grow. Knowledge, then, is the light through which we ripen. Grace exists in four ways: it is earthborn; it is heavenly; […] the highest heaven; […] in […].”
Unfortunately, the rest of the text was lost. Actually a lot of the found texts were used as kindling to, ah, start fires in a home heating stove after they were found in 1945, according to my research online. So we only have what’s left, and I’m trying to kind of puzzle out four ways in this text that grace exists and what parallels Philip was going to draw between farming, and god, and grace. It’s interesting isn’t it, that Philip goes from farming, to faith, hope, love, and knowledge, and then… out of nowhere, the leap to Grace, right in the very same paragraph. Farming and grace seem incongruous, but is it really the leap that it first appears? I poked around some more. I drew a chart that lined up parallels, lining up hope and nourish under water, and faith and root under earth, love and grow under air/wind, and knowledge and ripen under light. But still, those missing words about Grace. The four types of grace, but only three of them listed: heavenly grace, earthborn grace, the “highest heaven”…? I went searching again…
I’m really not knowledgeable about God. I mean, I know my little sister is probably going to snicker as she reads this (oh just you wait there’s actually Bible quotes up ahead, and yeah, I probably need to capitalize Bible, don’t I?). I grew up in a household that, I guess dabbled might be the word for it, and went from a Roman Catholic baptism to some clap-happy singing church services with smooth leather new testament Bibles as a kid, to attending when I felt like it or not all (I call it buffet style religion) and going to mass at Christmas only, or for a year leading up to baptizing my son that tapered off when he started talking out loud in church). I took a Bible class in school, ah, a literature class on the actual Bible, and I don’t really…. remember much. So I don’t know much about theology or god, oops God I mean. I don’t even know the call and response when I do go to Catholic services. It’s actually kind of embarrassing how little I know. Because of this, it feels funny to even venture into writing about God, or the Bible. Forgive me. I realize it’s pretty… presumptuous… but I’ll tell you what I found, and I won’t pretend to know something I don’t. So.
If you do a cursory internet search about Grace, you won’t come up with much more than Merriam Webster’s definition. “Favor of god” comes up a lot. I had a feeling though that at some point there was more of a discussion and a meaning to the word, and that it had been repeated so many times that all we had now was the shorthand, the cipher and the nuance was missing. Like a word sometimes becomes less meaningful when you repeat it over and over and over and then it even looks like gibberish. No offense to god’s favor or whatever, but I wanted something more, I wanted to find a definition and a discussion of the kind of grace I was thinking of, and I knew if had to be out there. I checked my email. I get emails from Food 52, and they show these lovely pictures of products they sell, of linen table cloths and pottery mugs on hand crocheted coasters to catch any errant drips from the lovely linen table cloth and all bathed in some sort of luminous light that looks to me as if I just had these things, I would feel grace. I’d be filled with grace. I’d be able to buy it. It’s right there, a charming life shown in a photo, for a price (plus shipping). But the kind of grace I’m searching for can’t really be purchased. I kept searching.
I kept looking for a definition and a discussion of what I meant by grace, and I kept bumping into religious texts. There was mention of farming that again touched on grace in Galations 6:7 “A man reaps what he sows.” And how does this touch on grace? Because the grace that I kept trying to define is partly seen or shown or felt in how you interact with the world and with others. There is grace in farming, in cultivating and in care for others, for plants, for animals, and in doing it well, and in doing it with the knowledge that it may not all work out, and that luck is involved as well as skill, and that there are no guarantees, but you do the best that you can and you hope for the best. That you care for livestock as well as you can, and that field, and this earth. That there is a benefit to doing it well, to giving more than the bare minimum to get by, to careful tending for potentially larger gain, in harvest and in knowledge and in having enough to share with others (at least I think so).
I learned that the Greek word for Grace is χάρις or Charis, and that in ancient times, there was a “semantic versatility” to the word grace. χάρις or grace had nuances of care and obligation, favor and gratitude, mercy and kindness, and had not only a theological aspect but was a social construct (the author uses the word social polemic and my god I just don’t want to even look that up right now, so I am hoping “construct” is a suitable replacement). Grace as part of the social fabric, this is what I was searching for. I had found it in a book: Paul’s Language of Grace in a Graeco-Roman context” by James R. Harrison. Paul being…. Paul the Apostle from the first century, who is credited with possibly writing 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament.
And then another fragment that ties into this meaning of grace, with it’s nuance of favor and gratitude, mercy and kindness, from Luke 6:32-36:
“But if you love those who love you, what credit(Charis or χάρις is the original word here, not “credit”) is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what χάρις is that to you? For even sinners go that same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what χάρις is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be the sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (New King James Version).
That is what grace means for me, and that is what I think is missing, and what is needed in the world right now. We need to rediscover grace as an integral part of our social fabric and daily interactions. More than love, and more than peace, we need to take the baby step of grace. Grace as part of the social fabric is care and obligation, favor and gratitude, mercy and kindness. Grace to me is the opposite of outrage, the opposite of resentment. Grace is empathy in action and in thought, in recognizing a common humanity despite differences of opinion or religion income or race, or differences period. It is respecting those you disagree with. Listening. Discussion. It is kindness in daily interactions, and forgiving those that don’t deserve it. It is giving people the benefit of the doubt initially, and in doing favors that can’t necessarily be repaid, and also in the gratitude for those favors. In the words of Karl Barth: “ Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning…” Grace and gratitude, intertwined.
So perhaps grace is in doing what you can, when you can, to the best of your ability, without any reciprocity. Remember random acts of kindness? Yeah, that’s grace. In a funny way, all those gofundme pages and crowdfunding sites, those were a form of grace too, at least at first. But they haven’t translated down to the everyday, they aren’t integral to the reality of how we live and aren’t an integral part of the social fabric. This is where grace might venture, if we allow it, on the social fabric, in our daily interactions.
You are skirting around the edges of grace in smiling and in saying thank you. When you are thanked, or when you say thank you, that and the giving of what you are thanked or saying thank you for, that is part of grace.
You are practicing grace when you fix something for someone else, or when you take a broken thing and make it better, make it useful once more, without expecting anything in trade except maybe a thank you. Restoring a damaged print, or sewing a hole shut in a teddy bear, putting broken things to right, those are little forms of grace. When you step in to help a neighbor, when you volunteer for the fire department, when you cook or clean for someone else without any expectations, and when you donate to charity, you are up to your elbows in grace.
When you treat someone with respect, when you do so even when you disagree, that too is essentially grace. Respect and the thanks for that respect, that is the interchange of grace. There is a give and a take, and they may not be even, even if they should be, but that give and that take is where grace resides. When you open a door, or a nation’s borders and let in those seeking refuge, I would argue that doing so is grace. Grace is partly in recognizing a common humanity. Grace is respecting that common humanity and again, in doing what you can, when you can, to the best of your abilities.
Why grace? Because we need a way out of this mess, and I think a lack of grace may be what led us here, to this point in time where we are more divided than any time in recent history. Everyone sticks to safety, to their own kind, isolated from differences with a click, with a wall or a border, or a private school, with this or that. But if you think about it, we are all connected to those we know, and beyond that to those they know, family, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, and the web of those they know, and those they know, and so on. Good qualities and bad, it is the people closest to you and those you interact with, and and the people THEY interact with that can effect change, like a ripple in a net made of ALL kinds of people with ALL kinds of opinions, like a mumuration of flying swallows, we are part and parcel, even to those you strongly disagree with. Respect that connection, recognize a common humanity, respect that opinions differ (rejoice that they CAN differ), and treat others with respect.
Is it easy? Uh, no. It’s not, at least not for me. What do you do when you are not treated with respect or with gratitude in return? Are there people not deserving of our grace? I don’t know. Maybe that’s one of the hardest parts of grace, in treating people as you would wish to be treated even if you yourself are not treated in kind.
And maybe the gnostic gospel of Phillip is right. Maybe Grace starts with something like farming after all,in the simple caring for crops and for animals that help to sustain us, a basic hope and nourishment and rooted earth faith (the earthborn grace that Philip mentions), and then in cultivating a ripening of knowledge and courtesy, where grace can spread and flourish beyond crops and animals to families and communities, to states and countries, and from that to… dare I say it, maybe a growing sense of love or peace. The love and the peace that just isn’t quite attainable right now, not without a lot more grace.
And you know, I’d maybe even settle for less snark and bullying if we can’t get all the way to grace.