One of my great frustrations growing up in the Church was that I never got a satisfactory definition of grace. Clergy and Sunday school teachers, televangelists and authors all talked about grace constantly but never defined the term. So I was excited, almost giddy when a guest preacher began a sermon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford by saying, “Today, I’m going to talk about grace.” Perhaps I would finally receive that definition that I had craved for so much of my young life. The preacher told a story:
I was traveling through the American South, and one early morning I stopped at a diner for breakfast. I ordered from the menu, but when the waitress brought my food, there was a slightly runny pile of mysterious white goo sitting next to my bacon and eggs. I called to the waitress, and asked what the runny goo was. And she said (and at this point, the preacher put on perhaps the worst fake Southern accent I have ever heard), “Oh those are grits!” Perplexed, I responded “but I didn’t order that,” to which the waitress replied, “Oh you don’t order it, it just comes.”
That was it. That was the preacher’s definition of grace. As you can imagine, my frustration continued. I didn’t want an analogy, I wanted a definition. What are we talking about when we refer to the grace of God? It seems that this should be a fairly easy question for us to answer.
My second opportunity to get a definition of grace came in confirmation class. I was sitting in the Dean’s office with several other people studying to be confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. During the course of one discussion, somebody mentioned “grace.” This was my opportunity, I thought. I raised my hand and asked, “Could we please define grace? I’ve been looking for a definition since I was five years old, and I’ve never been satisfied.” The Dean, like any good Episcopal priest, passed the question to the group and said, “What do people think? Can anyone help with a definition?” One of the older women in the class raised her hand and said “Well, I once heard a sermon about a priest having breakfast in the South…” My groan was audible.
It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I finally got the definition I was looking for. I was taking a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the word “grace” came up in one of the documents we were studying. The professor turned to the seminar class and asked, “Can anybody clarify what we’re talking about here?” I was entirely prepared to hear another story about grits, complete with a bad Southern accent, when some angel, sent by God to clarify something that had confused me for fifteen years said simply “unmerited favor.” Grace is favor from God that we do nothing to deserve, but it is given to us anyway. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, confident in the notion that I finally understood the nature of grace.
Or did I? Certainly, I now had a simple definition of grace. But I wonder whether any of us can truly understand what it means to have the undeserved favor of God? I wonder whether the question of grace is actually one of the more difficult questions we wrestle with as Christians. Over the next few days, we will be exploring this challenging concept of grace. We will consider how grace impacts our relationship with God and how it informs our relationships with other people. I think that we will discover that grace is not at all easy to understand, that although we may have a definition of grace, we are all still striving to understand the wonderful and mysterious grace of God.