A Graceful Encounter
Have you ever been overwhelmed with joy for no other reason than you knew a particular person? Not happy, I get happy every day because of the girls, particularly when they make me laugh out loud. Not just glad. That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, joyful as in you feel overwhelmed with inexplicable smiles and peace when you think of the person? This doesn’t happen in everyday life, not the kind of joyful appreciation I experienced today.
This morning, while driving to the doctor and concerned with the seemingly endless stream of plaguing health issues, I prayed. I do this every day, and most of the time, I’m greeted by a small seed of satisfaction and momentary peace that comes from praying. I am usually not greeted by a sense of power. Today, however, the strangest thing happened. I wasn’t miraculously healed of all ailments, I didn’t see or hear unexplained beings. No. I just started smiling. I didn’t know why I was smiling; it actually seems a little loopy since I was pretty worried before the prayer, but smile I did. After indulging in a meaningless, but uplifting, smile, I was struck by the desire to verbally thank and praise God. Not for anything specific, just because He’s, well, God. He’s, well, good. So, even though the enemy and my rational brain combined were calling me a Fruit Loop for doing so—I mean, the prayer hadn’t even been answered, I verbally said, “thank you,” and “Majesty”. Just for a minute, just while I felt the Holy Ghost’s spirit encouraging me to do so.
I can’t even tell you how happy I was, and for no other reason than the fact that I knew unequivocally that God was listening to me with His whole heart. It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer. But most of the time, when I pray, I don’t get the sense that I have God’s undivided attention. That’s what this felt like: it felt like I was a child and I had just called “Abba?” and he’d turned around, smiled brightly at me and replied, “Yes, my child?”, putting on hold all the other ten bagazillion things that were more important than me. He will, and I’m certain of it, but even if He never answers another one of my prayers, I am perfectly okay with that because the most important prayer of all — that He cares enough to listen attentively to me was answered.
And another thing—-I smiled for most of the duration of my drive.
Which made me think.
Growing up, the one thing that my mother told me enough times to drill into my head was that smiling at someone who isn’t being nice to you makes you a better person, at least for that circumstance. I clung to that teaching, especially after I witnessed its truth. When I lived in Canada, two boys walked up to me while I was playing in front of our house and one of them punched me in the stomach for no good reason. My sister immediately got my mother who gave the boys a well-deserved dressing down but Mama now remembers that I said, “It’s okay,” and went back inside (though I did cry). I smile at everybody. Talk to me for more than a day and you’ll hear, “I’m good, how are you?” or some variation thereof multiple times. I’ve smiled in the face of at least three bullies in my lifetime.
And I’ve been smiled at too. I moved to Memphis halfway through my Junior year of high school. This was traumatizing to me, as it meant I had to leave my favorite teacher in the whole world, Stackhouse, along with multiple other teachers to whom I had grown attached. It meant I had to leave my high school, which was the best place to happen to me while growing up. It was traumatizing. Several months after moving away, we returned to the school to get records and I went to surprise Stackhouse with a visit. When that man turned around, the smile on his face comforted me at night for years to come because, without speaking a word, his slow smile told me he was genuinely happy to see me. It told me more than words could have. I once had a stranger hold a door open for me and, with his act of ordinary kindness, his smile, he changed my whole word because he reminded me that there were still good people out there. You see, smiles are transforming. Smiles can change a person’s day from bad to good in the space of a second. I asked the Sunday School kids I teach last week to name some ways that they could show love to others and I asked them if smiling at someone they did not know was showing love. They said it was. They were right. Smiling is important for more reasons than most people acknowledge or think about. It’s a lot like grace.
Today, in the car, when I felt the need to smile and to thank God even though my heart was heavy (as it often is), I experienced not only the Holy Spirit’s presence (which would be worthy alone of a blog) but I also experienced grace in its most beautiful way. “Amazing Grace” is my favorite hymn but how often do I actually stop to think about what grace is? Not very, and that’s probably because we don’t feel the effects of grace powerfully very often. But, when it comes, it takes our whole day, our whole world, and quietly hugs it.
Grace is the realization that you aren’t alone. The truth is, we all know we’re human. We all know that we, in and of ourselves, are not capable of much. Yet we try to live as though we are. We demand a great deal from ourselves—we work overtime, we have to be the best at everything or we feel like failures. When something really bad happens, when, for instance, we face a health issue or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or anything else that stresses us out, we start to feel helpless and hopeless. We start to lose faith in our ability. We can’t see past the pain, or the potential devastation, because of thoughts like this one: “I don’t know how I’m going to __________.”
Perhaps that’s the whole problem. We can’t do anything. We have no power, and we realize it when life pulls the bottom out from beneath us. We feel trapped and alone. Grace then reaches down and touches our hearts, reminds us that we’re not alone, we don’t have to have super-human strength. Our human, independent nature tells us that we have to rely on no one but ourselves. I find this sad and self-defeating since, deep down, we all know that, alone, we aren’t capable of much. We can get to the moon but we can’t stop cancer, or old age, from killing us.
Grace comes from realizing that this is okay because we know someone else who is stronger, wiser and more capable. There is comfort in realizing that you are being listened to ,that the undivided attention of someone greater than yourself, someone more capable than yourself, someone who doesn’t ever have to doubt His ability to perform whatever miracle is needed is actually paying attention to no one but you. This is grace.
God is good. This simple truth is one that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit to having questioned at least a time or two in our lives, especially when He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we think He should. Being a good parent does not mean saying yes to everything your children want. It does, however, mean being there to support them, to hold our your arms for them when they fall, to offer your attention when they want to share something exciting with you. Being a good parent doesn’t mean hiding your child away from the world so that she might never be hurt: instead, most would agree, it is better for that child to learn to live, to embrace relationships even if those same relationships hurt her down the road. It is better to walk than to be carried but only when our parent or our best friend holds our hand while we travel. It’s easy to see that these things are true when talking about children and parents but how easy we forget these things when talking about God. How quick we are to judge His over-all goodness and usefulness by how many prayers He answers “correctly.” Grace is the reminder that God is better a father than the best earthly dad could ever hope to be, and that He acts as such.
Grace is the reminder that life isn’t the Garden of Eden but neither do we have to do it alone. Grace is the touch of a friend’s hand upon your shoulder, or the warmest hug you’ve ever felt. I was reminded today that the God I serve is a good God, even if the answer to my specific prayer this time is “no.” He’s good because He loves me. He’s good because He always knows exactly what I need even when I don’t. I thought I needed an answer to a prayer; what I really needed was the assurance that He heard my prayer. He’s good because He cares about me. He’s good because He created this world, with it’s mountains and flowing rivers and perfect sunrises. He’s good because He made me a mother, a sister, a fiance, children and friends who genuinely care about me and about whom I deeply care as well. He’s good because He granted every single living soul a tool by which to transform a bad day into a good one, both for ourselves and for those around us: a smile. Grace is not the ability to smile but feeling the desire to do so even when in physical and emotional pain. Grace is remembering that God is about more than answered prayers: He’s our friend, a friend who has chosen us to be near Him.
How good of a friend are we to Him? We claim to believe in Him—how often do we read the Bible, go to church, contemplate and reflect upon His teachings, remember His son in our daily, busy, earthly lives? How many times do we pray just so we can have that time with Him, just so we can be near Him? Is it as often as we carve out time for that best friend or spouse of ours? When Jesus healed the seven lepers, only one returned to thank Him. Only one. Would we be that one person who remembered to thank Jesus or do we just take for granted He knows we love Him and so only come to Him when things don’t go our way? Yet how often does He say, “That’s okay, I understand, don’t worry about the days you didn’t, just talk to me now”?
Grace is feeling loved despite not being a good friend; it’s being reminded that you have the most important thing in the world: God. The realization and the presence of grace was thick in my car today: I was so aware of the Holy Spirit that I almost felt like I was looking out the windshield half expecting to see a physical manifestation of God. I was happy, for no reason other than the fact that I know Him and not only is He my friend, but I’m His friend, too: He proved that by sending His son to die for me, but He also proves it by listening to me when I talk to Him. I’m not talking to the air. I’m not talking to myself. I’m talking to God.
Boy, that made me happy and proud and peaceful and joyful! I started singing, “Oh, God, you are my God, and I will ever praise you” and I remembered that it is important to smile and to show appreciation and love for and towards not only our family, our friends and the strangers we meet every day but also toward the One who is our greatest ally, our closest friend: God. We often hear God referred to as a shining light. He truly is that, and He is worthy of all the praise and open affection we have to offer. His Son endured agony for my sake and then He cares enough about me still to offer the touch of grace when I need it most: the least I can do in return is lift my hands in praise of Him and offer an honest and heart-felt smile for His sake alone.