But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace toward me has not been in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:10a
Have you found yourself wondering where this unbridled anger and hatred has been hiding, which seems to have taken over the public discourse of our nation? Permission has apparently been granted to express the voice of pain in ways that bring out the worst of our humanity. Fear and anger have a way of doing this. They have always had a way of doing this when we allow our pain to define our actions and words. There is no denying that the pain around us is real.
There is pain when one fears they can’t pay for food to find its way to the table. There is pain when one fears they can’t find a job because of the color of their skin. There is pain when one does not have money to pay for medical bills that keep piling up. There is pain when one fears the secret abuse experienced as a child will be found out. Life seems to be littered with pain – injustice, loss of employment, broken relationships, illnesses, political systems that seem out of whack; congregations struggling with survival instead of vision and hope. These challenges are real – and the truth is that none of us escape their looming presence.
Like some of you, I have wounds from pain I carry from my life’s journey – pain from childhood abuse. I carry the pain of the failure of a brief first marriage. I bear the pain of a mother holding her premature dead infant daughter. There are other wounds I carry. I shared some of these wounds at the May presbytery meeting – the stereotypes that wounded my spirit and tempted me to believe that, because of my Latinx heritage, I was not ‘smart’ enough to venture forth into challenging and exciting possibilities afforded others. I am aware, if I focus on the pain, it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. I’ve learned life can’t be lived by simply focusing on the pain. But that assumes an intentionality of movement of the mind and heart – and that is not always easy to do. I distinctly remember a moment several decades ago when I consciously wondered why I was not angry with the world. I wondered why, in spite of these moments of pain, I was able to make choices for my life that allowed me to move forward with some degree of healing and forgiveness- for myself and others. All I could come up with was, “there but by the grace of God go I.”
I remember being surprised by my own words. I meant them – I was naming something within me that has allowed me to find hope in the midst of real pain. I have come to recognize that something as ‘grace.’ It is this deeply rooted presence of God’s grace and love that has allowed me to take another breath, take another step when others would be defeated, or worse yet, be swallowed up by resentment and hate. It is this profound awareness of a constant invisible embrace that has kept me standing. It has kept me rooted in hope.
Today, I understand this is our identity as a people of faith. We are a people rooted in grace. This is our ultimate call – to reflect unmerited grace in our lives so others might become a people of hope. It is funny, but this hope is ultimately not manifested in success or power. I have seen this grace expressed in places of profound poverty and persecution. Contrary to popular cultural images, I have seen this grace find voice and hope in the most unexpected places. My Aunt Rosa fought cancer for over 20 years before she died 4 years ago. She raised three kids as a single mom in Spanish Harlem. She lived below the poverty level and had no formal education. Objectively speaking, there was nothing easy about her life. But there is no one I have known who embodied grace more than she did. “There but by the grace of God goes she.” Her faith and her love of God radiated through her eyes. Being in her presence made you smile. Spending time with her gave you joy and hope to live another day. And her kids all did just that – completing college and moving their mom into a lovely little apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC where she spent the last days of her life until she went into hospice. There is little more amazing than the presence and power of grace.
As we consider our pilgrimage of faith as Christians across 300 years in the greater Philadelphia area, my hope for us is that we can celebrate and affirm our identity as a people rooted in grace. “There but by the grace of God we stand” today as a people of faith witnessing to the love of Christ across languages, cultures, race, ethnicities, histories and more. There is no question that life in contemporary USA and the world is complicated – tempting us to be the worse of humanity, giving voice to our pain in ways that destroy one another. But grace – God’s grace – somehow manages to overcome ‘the complicated’ with forgiveness, possibilities and hope – framing our view of the world (and ourselves) in the likeness of the One in whose image we are created. Grace allows us to see the world through the eyes of God’s love for each of us. May we aspire to be a people who embody ‘amazing grace’ in all we do!