I was raised a Catholic. I went to Catholic school, we went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. I really loved my upbringing. When I was in 7th grade, during Lent, I would get up extra early every school day and go to 6:00 a.m. Mass with the nuns. I truly felt very holy, but, also, there was a change happening inside me.
I was a very “awkward” kid: not pretty, wore glasses, big nose, big eyes, big teeth, frizzy, curly hair, clumsy. You know the type: the nerdy one who was one hot mess! I did always have friends, and they seemed to like me; maybe it was because I tried to over-compensate for my looks with humor, I don’t really know, but I did have a good life and a fun childhood in spite of me. But during that Lent of going to morning Mass, I was changing. It’s still hard to articulate into words what was happening, but there was a new presence of comfort and acceptance deep within. It didn’t make me want to be a nun or anything, but it was a good feeling, as I was losing the consciousness of my short-comings. I didn’t know it then, but as I look back on that time, I think God was showing me a glimpse of myself as He saw me, and His mirror was so much kinder than mine, His thoughts so affectionate.
Fast-forwarding to the teen years, I hated going to Mass! I would do anything to try to get out of it—I just wanted to be squirreled away in my room with my stereo and my pen and paper. Not rebellious, just typical. But every Sunday, we would get woken up, and driven to Mass. The best part of my day was when it was over! So, when I married a non-Catholic at age 19, going to church was not a priority at all, and Sunday was a day to sleep in and just bum around. It seems I had forgotten all about God.
We agreed that we would raise our children Catholic, so when I was pregnant with the first one, I registered in the parish of our town, and dutifully went to church to establish my presence. She was baptized Catholic, as was our second-born.
Sometime in those years, I realized there was something missing. I longed to feel that comforting presence that I felt in my Lent of morning Mass. I had a good life, but I yearned for a spiritual presence. My husband felt the same, and started attending a local protestant church. It totally changed him. He went from being a “hey-wow-hippie-radical-freak”-like person, to someone completely changed. I thought he was a little nuts—ok, a lot nuts. So I figured “ok, buddy, if you’re going to be nuts in the protestant church, I’m going to start going to the one, true, holy church and get involved” . And I did. I became a CCD teacher, went to Mass every Sunday, helped out with the Christmas pageant, and joined the charismatic prayer group. Meanwhile, the folks in Jim’s church were praying for my unsaved, immortal soul.
When my prayer group needed someone to do the music, Jim agreed to come. He attended that group with me every Tuesday night for about a year, but he still went to his church on Sunday. He would have long talks with the priest and the deacon, and really enjoyed fellowship with the people there. One day, though, he came to me and said he just couldn’t be Catholic. He loved the people, and was glad I was there, but just couldn’t agree with all of the teachings, and didn’t want to be a hypocrite. By then, I had reestablished my relationship with God, coming to realize that my relationship with God, not the church, was what was important, and I felt it was better to be a unified family and raise the kids together in church, so I left the Catholic church to join Jim in his.
Man! What an eye-opener! Coming from a church of rote memorization, the liturgy of the Mass, and a real background of the church being hallowed ground, I was not prepared for the open, unstructured atmosphere of Jim’s church. The actual service was structured, but kids were allowed to run all around, climbing on chairs, and when people came into the building, they were laughing, talking and greeting one another right up until the time the service began. No tip-toeing into the sanctuary, no genuflecting and kneeling in prayer until the service started. It was certainly a new experience. Everyone was very gracious, always greeting me warmly with a handshake or a hug, always seemingly glad to have me there. Until one day I overheard some ladies talking. There were a few older women in the church who were sisters and apparently had been there since that church began. We were meeting in a school building while the church building was being built, and I was in the room that was being used as the nursery. The elder sisters were outside the door, talking to the pastor’s wife—about me.
They were saying how very concerned they were that I seemed to want to get involved in the church, when, after all, I was a Catholic, and a smoker, and not really “saved.” The pastor’s wife agreed with them. I was horrified! Just because I never ran down the aisle of the church and threw myself on the altar in public repentance for all to see, they doubted my salvation! I don’t know, but I always thought that because I believed that Jesus is the Son of God, and it is through his shed blood and resurrection that I am redeemed, and by His grace, I am saved.
“ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Eph. 2:8
I knew I believed that. I did not lead a bad life. I was a good person, although admittedly a little rough around the edges for some, and certainly had a lot of growing to do in the Lord. But not “saved”? Saved from what?? The only thing I felt I needed saving from was these narrow-minded biddies and their untrue judgment. I went outside and lit a cigarette to contemplate the situation. I could not understand how they could be so gracious when speaking to me when they obviously felt that I was less than them. That incident messed with my mind and emotions for a long time. The consciousness of that nerdy, not-good-enough kid returned with a vengeance. I didn’t know how to fit into this world of what I perceived as the worst sanctimonious insincerity.
Thankfully, there was also another group of women in the church, also all related to one another, that were the most loving people I had ever encountered. They were not only gracious to me, but actually liked me and never ever made me feel that I was some kind of an inferior person. They accepted me for who I was, and we all became very good friends. We raised our families together, and had amazing Bible studies and prayer meetings. They knew how to walk in the gift of grace, and I learned the difference between being gracious and being an instrument of grace.
To be gracious is an act of being nice, treating people well, in spite of who they are or what they have done. It’s a good thing to do that. We are supposed to be nice and treat each other as we would want to be treated. Grace, however, elevates both the giver and receiver.
“ Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” 1Pet. 4:10
To be a “grace dispenser” is saying that one desires to use themselves as an administrator of whatever God has for the recipient. It is to purpose to put oneself and opinions aside, and look at others through God’s mirror. It may be to exhibit an act of kindness, it may be to lend an ear, or to be a friend. One ministers grace to others freely, and never looks at others to see if they are “worthy” enough to receive it. We are to walk in the gift of grace. “No one is less than me”—that is the unspoken motto of one who understands grace.
In a previous blog I quoted a Scripture:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Mt. 11: 28-30 (MSG)
I love that! I believe during that Lenten season of my youth, I was learning the “unforced rhythms of grace”. The friends I met in that church walked in that, and were able to minister it to me, despite what others thought of me. Grace in practice is a powerful lesson!
I am forever grateful for the amazing grace of God that saved me, the blood of Jesus that was shed for my salvation. I am still a work in progress, but I pray that I have been able to extend grace to others, as that which was extended to me. If ever there has been a time in our history that we should consider God and His grace, it is now. I close this post with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, and pray God’s abundant grace and blessings to you and your families!
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!“ Abraham Lincoln