A Glimpse of Grace

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Grace.

One of those Christian-ese terms that you often hear at church or in worship songs. While most Christians would tell you that they know what grace is, they probably wouldn’t be able to explain it. Why not? Because most of us have a vague idea about grace, but we don’t fully grasp it. After all, articulation is the litmus of comprehension. In other words, if you can’t explain a concept to someone else, you don’t really understand it.

When it comes to grace, I generally fall into the perplexed category. Although I wouldn’t call myself the governor of the “state of confusion,” I definitely have a local address, especially regarding grace. That’s because grace is more than just a far-off theological term or a prayer you say before chowing down. Not only is grace an integral part of the Gospel and, but it also plays an essential role in our lives. And that can make it difficult to grasp. Like a zoomed-in camera lens, we find ourselves too close to see the entire “grace picture.” Sometimes, though, God hoists us on His shoulders, giving us the bird’s-eye-view. In these moments, we catch a glimpse of grace. For me, Wednesday April 18th held one such moment.

For a week and a half, I’d been denying the existence of my combined sinus and ear infection, hoping that it would get bored and leave me alone. But finally after twelve hours of difficulty in swallowing, I broke down and went to my local Walgreen’s Take Care Clinic. Here the kindhearted nurse practitioner Shelley took care of me (no pun intended) and told me that, yes, I did indeed have a sinus and ear infection (Note: When infected, your eardrums look bloodshot. Weird, huh?). After fifteen minutes of friendly conversation and symptom checking, she sent me happily on my way. She even called in the prescription at the Wal-Mart pharmacy, so I could pick it up on my way home. Wonderful.

Looking at my watch, I realized that I was within the 2-4 p.m. Sonic happy hour, so I treated myself to a strawberry Limeade. Then I remembered that I had wedding gifts to purchase. Since Target was conveniently located right behind Sonic, I dropped in. Ten minutes later, I strolled up to the nearest register with an 8-pack of Sterilite mixing bowls and a set of four glasses in hand. My mission was almost complete.

Then my sweet cashier, bless his heart, offered to bag my gifts. No sooner had I said, “Sure,” did I hear the sickening thud and clank of the glasses, in their box, hitting the linoleum floor. More striking, though, than the sound of my purchase colliding with the ground was the expression on my cashier’s face. I could almost feel his heart sink as he quickly picked up the box to survey the damage. That’s when I noticed his “New Team Member” sticker where his name tag should have been. Poor kid. I drop things all the time. What if it were my first day on the job? Dropping a set of four glasses would have been my greatest fear. And that’s exactly what he did. Together we opened the box and checked all the glasses: Not a mark on any of them! Hallelujah! Smiling, I told him not to worry about it, that I would still take the glasses. He sighed with relief.

Thirty minutes later, I walked out of Wal-Mart, antibiotic in hand, and slid into my little red Volvo. As I started to back out of the parking space, I noticed a man in my rearview mirror. He was signaling me that I was clear to go. Normally, I am an incredibly cautious and competent driver. I’d never been in an accident; I’d never hit anyone or anything. But as I watched him motion me backward, I must have gotten distracted because, before I knew it, I heard the sickening sound of impact. My fender had just sideswiped the bumper and wheel of the car next to me. Shoot. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the traffic-director man then said, “That’s my car.” Double shoot. Every time I enter or leave a parking space and the car next to me has people in it, I hold my breath because I’m terrified of hitting them; it’s my greatest parking-lot fear. And that’s exactly what I did. Needless to say, my heart sank.

The next few minutes were a blur. He rushed over to examine his car. I called my mom to ask about insurance. His wife and newborn baby appeared from inside the store. As I was simultaneously trying to explain the situation to my mom and offering profuse apologies to them, the man and his pretty wife looked closer at the damage. The red mark from my Volvo came easily off the hubcap, and only a small paint scratch remained on the vehicle itself. When I asked if they wanted my insurance information, they said that a claim would only raise both our rates, and a paint scratch wasn’t worth the trouble. I gave them my name and number nonetheless and told them to contact me if something changed, but they told me repeatedly that it was fine and I didn’t need to worry. It wasn’t until after I’d backed out successfully and moved into an empty area that the tears began to fall.

Grace. In the span of sixty minutes, I’d given it and received it. And began to better understand it.

If asked, most Christians would probably define grace as “getting something you don’t deserve,” like a gift. And while I think that definition holds true to an extent, it also falls pitifully short. It fails to capture the emotion, the will and the heart behind it. Grace isn’t like purchasing a wedding gift or a birthday present, which is a one-time, semi-obligatory display of kindness. No, it’s a conscious decision, driven by compassion, to tell someone that it’s okay, that they are okay, and that they don’t have to worry because everything is going to be alright. It’s the choice to give a smile instead of a reprimand, a hug instead of a slap. It’s unexpected. It’s unwarranted.  It’s completely contrary to human nature. And that’s exactly why when Jesus calls us to be ambassadors for His Gospel, He wants us to be agents of His grace. Mercy triumphs over judgment, and God’s grace saves us.

Which I guess makes it pretty darn “amazing.” 🙂

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May The Source Be With You

In January 2011, I met my arch nemesis. And she had already been dead for 287 years.

Okay, so I might be exaggerating just a tad. Or quite a lot. She wasn’t exactly my arch nemesis (even though she had been dead for almost three centuries), but my history thesis about her would become the bane of my senior year existence.

Johanna Eleonora Petersen wasn’t a terrible person. In fact, based on everything I read about her, she seemed like a pretty nice gal. It’s not her fault that she caused me mental anguish and maximum stress, so I really shouldn’t blame her. No, I’m the source of the problem because I’m the one who decided to do my senior history thesis about her. I should have known when I chose an obscure 17th-century female German Pietist that I was digging my own grave. No pun intended.

Back in January, Petersen (or “JEP”, as I called her. Yes, we were on a nickname basis) seemed like a super choice for a variety of reasons: She was a woman; she was a devout Pietist (Pietism was basically a resurgence of Luther’s Reformation of the church and call to personal faith in Christ); she lived a really long time ago, and she spoke German. Of course, everything that made Petersen the best choice also made her the worst. Ironic? Welcome to my life.

You see, I had unwittingly set myself up for a challenge. A really big challenge. First of all, I had to find sources about Petersen. That was easy enough. A few skillful online searches and a dozen interlibrary loans later, I had my secondary sources. But then—ooooohhhh, but then—my quest for primary sources began.  Therein lay the rub.

Although Petersen was a prolific writer with dozens of published works (a HUGE accomplishment for a woman at that time), the majority had either ceased to exist or were locked away in “special collections” at research libraries in Germany. In historian-speak, “special collections” means “no-touchy” or better yet  “sorry boutcha.” Barring an order from the UN or an act of God Himself, I wasn’t going to see these books. But fortunately, modern—or, er, semi-modern—technology saved the day. And that’s how I found myself in the Oklahoma State library’s microfiche-reading room.

In case you were born after 1985, let me explain to you microfiche or microfilm. Basically, it’s a long roll of film that contains itty-bitty photos of pages from books. Newspapers use microfiche to archive their copy. And apparently libraries do the same with German Pietist writings. In order to conduct my study of Petersen, I had to use the microfiche to print pages from her book. And then once I had the text, I had to figure out how to read 17th-century font … in German…. and figure out what it said. Suffice it to say, I had my work cut out for me. Luckily, however, even though I had bit off more than I could chew, I somehow managed to swallow it without choking. In the end, I had a 27-page original research paper I could be “stolz auf” or proud of.

Now, I know what you’re wondering: First, why in the wide world would I willingly subject myself to such torture? And secondly, why in the even wider world am I telling you this? Unfortunately, the first question will require deeper psychoanalysis than I can currently afford. But the second question? Well, I’m so glad you asked! 🙂

History, you see, is more than just a blow-off class from your freshman year of college. History is like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered. But in order to find it, in order to truly understand history, you have to get back to the original source. With Petersen, I could have simply read commentaries about what she had written. I could have extensively studied biographies written about her (all two of them). I might have even found expert opinions from top scholars about what she believed and why she acted as she did. I could have worked really hard to find out from other people about Petersen, and I could have written a phenomenal paper based on their work. But no matter how Pulitzer-prize worthy it might have been, I would have wound up with a big, fat F. Why? Because I didn’t use primary sources. And every historian knows that primary sources are the primary source of history (Pun very much intended.)

Historians know that the only legitimate way to learn about a historical figure or past event is to study sources from the time. Photographs, journal entries, letters, eyewitness accounts—all of these are windows to the past. Yes, secondary sources written by experts can be helpful; yes, they can provide insight and direction, but they are no substitute for primary sources. This is the most basic concept of historical study, the historian’s version of 1 + 1 = 2. No legitimate student of history would ignore this rule.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Steffi, I don’t need a lecture on proper historical research techniques. Thanks for the info, but this really doesn’t matter to me.”

Or so you think.

Although you will likely never have to write an academic paper using original historical research, this lesson on primary sources applies directly to you. Because if you’re a Christian, you spend at least some fraction of time reading the most important primary source ever written: The Bible.

So often, though, we turn to books and commentaries about the Bible rather than the text itself. Yes, these other sources can be helpful to understand and apply Scripture, but they are no substitute for the Bible itself. Just like I had to read JEP’s work to grasp her beliefs, so we must read what God says if we want to know Him and, moreover, live like Him. God is the most important Being in the entire universe, so we should devote as much time, effort, and care as humanly possible to studying Him. And that begins with digging inductively into His Word. To do otherwise would be beyond foolish, and our faith—which is far more consequential than a grade—depends on it.

But how are we supposed to study the Bible? It can be so confusing that we don’t know where to start, or we are too intimidated to try. And that’s where Inductive Bible Study saves the day!

First, you must Observe the text. Read it through several times and look for the basics, asking Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? For instance, who is writing to whom? What are they saying? What words are repeated? Jot down notes as you go. Once you have a general idea of what is happening, you can move to the next stage: Interpretation. What is the author saying and what does that mean? Use the notes from step one as clues. And then finally, once you have determined the meaning, you are ready to Apply it. How does this passage affect or change the way I live? And how can I act on it? And the bonus step: Give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations! You have successfully studied God’s Word! Now you’re ready to move on to the next passage… and the next one after that… and after that… etc, etc.

And who knows? If you keep applying the Bible to your life, if you keep seeking after and living for Him, someone may write about you in 287 years. 😉