Grasping for Grace – Sacred Sunday

Posted on June 24, 2012


“Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful.”

One of the most powerful talks this past General Conference was, for me, Elder Holland’s talk on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. How simply he unwound the seeming unfairness of the Lord’s treatment of the workers at different hours, showing how nobody was treated inequitably! The master’s choice to reward some who had waited and received nothing all day long with the same thing – the wage necessary to keep a man and his family fed and clothed for that one day – as those who labored with peace of mind all day long became an incredible dissertation on the Lord’s kindness.

I was reminded of one of my favorite nonscriptural discourses of all time: Work We Must, But The Lunch Is Free by Hugh Nibley. It reminds me of my “see, they didn’t again!” response during every single episode of every series of Star Trek (I realize that admitting this exposes me as a geek of an even geekier order): nobody ever gets paid. They do their jobs and they feel a high degree of passion about them, they have shifts and responsibilities and they evidently purchase things they need here and there, take the occasional vacation on a passing planet – but you never see any money on the ship. They have what they need (like the workman’s daily wage in the parable) but there’s no discussion about it. It all seems very … equitable.

So one exits Elder Holland’s talk feeling very peaceful with the vagaries of life because equitability will win out. It’s all very fair in the end – like Star Trek, we all have a job, place to call our own, food, and a uniform. We have no need to envy anyone their blessings, even when they didn’t contribute the effort others might have. “Why should you be jealous because I choose to be kind?” Elder Holland intones in the place of the Savior. I am convinced. I will not look askance at any of my neighbor’s blessings.

But …

What if I’m in the middle of digging myself out from a terrible thing – wounded by another, my life altered in very concrete, daily ways – how do I feel about the Lord’s kindness to those who’ve wounded me? How do I feel about their picket fence life when I’m trying to put mine back together, and how do I feel about the Lord that he has gone to find more laborers while I’m working away in a miserable situation, not losing faith, but also not being relieved? I’m not in that situation now, but I have been, and I have a soft spot for those who are, and as sweet as this interpretation is, it doesn’t quite bring the balm that the wounded day-long laborer seeks.

Except …

Elder Holland talks about grace: “This is a story about God’s goodness, His patience and forgiveness, and the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a story about generosity and compassion. It is a story about grace.” It is a story about grace, the kind offered to someone who comes round a bit later than others, to someone who is invited to share a bit later because perhaps he came to himself and realized he wanted to work for the kingdom long after others had had that epiphany. Like the older son in the parable of the prodigal, however, there seems little recognition for the long-suffering, silent service of the one who chose early in the day.

Where’s his grace? 

Perhaps the wounded day-long laborer wonders if it wouldn’t have been better to have just waited until 5:00?

Elder Holland has talked about The Other Prodigal … and precisely 10 years ago. In discussing this wounded older son, he says,

This son is not so much angry that the other has come home as he is angry that his parents are so happy about it. Feeling unappreciated and perhaps more than a little self-pity, this dutiful son—and he is wonderfully dutiful—forgets for a moment that he has never had to know filth or despair, fear or self-loathing. He forgets for a moment that every calf on the ranch is already his and so are all the robes in the closet and every ring in the drawer. He forgets for a moment that his faithfulness has been and always will be rewarded.

Except that not always does it feel rewarded. Maybe you can’t wear the rings or the robes yet. Maybe you do feel a degree of self-loathing as you try to explain to people around you why it’s important to be faithful when that doesn’t seem to be yielding the tangible benefits (or sometimes the intangible ones) that are always promised. Maybe you don’t have any desire to throw down your shovel and stomp off, but you wonder why you couldn’t have been wearing the rings and robes all along if they’re yours. The white picket fence life, even the white picket fence feeling, eludes you, just as it seems to have the oldest son.

I’ve been wondering about this all day. Grace is the answer, I know it. Grace is the spiritual iteration of a seek function on a spreadsheet: no matter what you have, you can specify the value you need and it will supply the difference. Sometimes I think the dialogue in church (especially conference) is like public school, catering to those struggling the most (leaving the ninety and nine, etc). The assumption is, like public school, that those not struggling so much will get along well enough on their own and help one another. I think this is why those who struggle with Church don’t feel as welcome in church, because the people in church are muddling along helping each other instead of facing outward. Much of it is time spent uplifting the wounded day-long laborer instead of going after the wanderers. It’s assumed that that’s what the other six days are for, since the wanderers aren’t likely to be in the fold. It’s often a great misunderstanding, partially because we can’t tell as we look at one another if we’re the wanderer, the wounded, or the ones expected to help either the wanderer or the wounded.

So how does the wounded saint find grace? Here are some of my thoughts on that, but I’d like yours as well.

Admit you’re hurt. Many of us don’t find solace because we hide our wounds, intending to pull off the image that we think is required of steady saints. All saints get hurt. Everyone does. Nobody knows how to help until we’ll take a deep breath and be willing to be wounded. I’ve spent most of my life being self-sufficient. In my 40s I decided to let others see the cracks in my facade because I had no choice. It was very uncomfortable, but I discovered something I would never have otherwise known. I am loved very deeply by my friends, and I would never have known just how deeply until I let someone help me. Grace was sufficient when I wasn’t.

Give up your expectations. For many of us, the deepest hurts come when life does not unfold along promised trajectories. The expectation is that if we are obedient to the promised law, the promised blessings are ours … and soon. While it does sometimes occur that if you pay your tithing your financial life aligns, it isn’t a temporal promise (and it certainly has nothing to do with your marriage or your peace with doctrine.) While people who have family home evening religiously are promised greater peace in their homes, it doesn’t follow that they’ll have greater peace than other people who don’t have FHE. The promises move us along a spectrum all our own; it has nothing to do with anyone else’s. Grace is sufficient when we aren’t.

Don’t think about the pay. If we could live like Star Trek, I think life would be ideal. The effort and value we bring to our work, whatever that is, would always triumph over the personal gain. I think the workers in the vineyard worked in relative peace because they knew their souls were saved and the circumstances of the day were immaterial. It was only when the pay came into the picture that they became disenchanted. Perhaps it’s a mistake to teach the gospel as a pathway that will bring us temporal happiness. It does, but it’s difficult to navigate people’s infinite expectations of that happiness, and sometimes the happiness it brings is eclipsed by the hoped-for happiness it didn’t. Grace is sufficient when life isn’t.

In order for grace to kick in, we have to acknowledge weakness and falling short. If we want grace, and ultimately any perfection, we start with the fact that we are insufficient. Every day is a gift, and every good thing is a surprise. My life is filled with pleasant surprises, and grace is more apparent when I see where it is instead of looking for it to appear where I want it to. It wasn’t always pleasant surprises. The Star Fleet outlook helped. God feels merciful to me again. The lunch is free, the work is satisfying.

What do you do to grasp grace as a sometimes wounded day-long laborer?

What would you suggest to others?

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