I hear it a lot, and I have spent a long time trying to make sense of it. You've heard it too, and we've probably all said it at one time or another. We've heard it or said at times when we want to understand, to understand why something horrible happens to someone else and not to us. "There but for the grace of God go I." That's it; that's the phrase that bugs me.
I remember hearing that from time to time as a child. I didn't think much about, and I guess I filed it away in that drawer of sayings, phrases and colloquialisms that I might pull from in a moment of need. As I grow, I notice that phrase more, I try harder to make sense of it.
I researched the origin of the phrase to find that some sources trace it back to John Bradford. Historians don't agree, though, about whether it was first uttered from John Bradford. If it was ole' John, apparently he said it in kindness and it has long since been used in the same way. That doesn't work for me. It doesn't seem like a kind sentiment to me, and it makes me wonder about all of the phrases I must utter in kindness to a friend, all of the phrases I might use when I want to give hope or love and that not be the message I give. Makes me think.
"There but for the Grace of God go I" sounds like humans doing a real whammy on God's grace, seems like a terrible oversimplification of something so wonderful, something bigger than anything we can understand. The phrase sounds nice, it does. But when I break it down it feels like the speaker is implying that God didn't give grace to the one who is hurting, the one who is unlucky, the one who has experienced a misfortune. Why would we ever say that to someone?
When our friends hurt, when they have lost the love of their lives or their child is sick or they experience an unbearable pain, we are sorry; and when we can be honest with ourselves, we imagine how it would feel to experience the same loss. We can't help but feel scared that it could possibly happen to us, that we could experience something that terrible. We can't help but imagine. But would we ever say that God's grace is only for us, pray that God cover us in grace when our friends received no grace?
I can't stand that. I know those words are always spoken in love. I do, but when I slow down the phrase, it doesn't work for me anymore. I know enough to know that I am only beginning to learn about grace. I can't explain it. I am thankful beyond words for God's grace; that I know. I'll spend my life continuing to learn about and explore God's grace. I'll keep asking questions and keep wondering.
I'll hear that phrase again, and it will bother me. I'll know that the sentiment is one of love, but I'll keep searching for something else to say. I'll keep trying hard to come up with other ways to tell folks that I am sorry, sorry beyond words. Maybe that's the deal - there aren't great phrases to say to folks who have just had their life kicked out from under them. Maybe what we say isn't the point. We don't understand, we can't explain. We can offer love, support and friendship, but there really isn't anything adequate to say.
I decided I shouldn't complain about something without offering an alternative, even if just for myself. I thought and thought. I don't have one. Lots of times really bad things happen to people we love. Sometimes really bad things happen to us. We don't know why. We have no idea. We can't explain. I have no alternative, no new words. I have pictures, though, and I offer those, moments of grace captured when I pressed pause for just a second.
A few illustrations of grace, pictures of times I've known God's grace and remembered to be thankful. I don't know all that grace is, but I am confident that God's grace is for me and for my children and family and for my friends and for the people I know and the people I don't know and the people who are lucky and the people who don't seem so lucky and the people I understand and the ones I don't understand. I'm confident that God's grace is big enough for us all.
A few pictures of grace for now, while we all keep wondering . . .