My favourite word used to be LOVE. It’s a feel-good word, loaded with sentimentality. This is a word we associate with our heart, and the heart is what keeps us ticking and kicking. We need love. We need it in our relationships and in our daily life. We may love our country, our province, and our neighbourhood. In the Bible the word love is used to tell us how to live: love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemies, love God.
Love brings people together. At a wedding people congregate to celebrate the couple’s love and also to express their love for the bride and groom. The ultimate love is for our children. Parents around the world would do anything to protect them.
But love also has its pitfalls. Love can fall apart. It can start as a spark, turn into a flame, and suddenly obliterate as if extinguished by a torrential downpour. Love is often conditional. You may have my love if you do this, do that, and toe my line…but if you don’t, I may withhold it as punishment or take it away forever.
The opposite of love is hate. There is a very fine line between the two. Anyone who goes through a divorce or a break-up will likely experience this feeling. How deep does love really go? If you betray me, slight me, slander me, or hurt me, any love that I’ve sent your way, I’m taking back. Love is not enough to sustain a relationship. There also has to be respect, consideration, sensitivity and appreciation, among other things.
And what does ‘love’ mean, really? It’s so much more than the word implies. My Oxford Dictionary has a very long description for ‘love.’ As a noun it includes everything from ‘warm affection’ to ‘paternal benevolence’ to ‘sexual desire.’ The definition of the verb ‘love’ includes: to hold dear, to delight in, to admire and be glad of the existence of. All can slip away slowly or die with a crash.
My new favourite word is GRACE. I’ve always thought it was a nice word, a pretty word, but hadn’t contemplated its meaning until I read a book called, What’s So Amazing about Grace? Can you imagine a 280 page book about one word? Everything Philip Yancey says about ‘grace’ boils down to one unadulterated definition: an unmerited gift. If I do something for you and I have no ulterior motive other than to please you, help you, inspire you, or make amends with you, that is grace.
Yancey uses the example of a kindly bishop in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to illustrate. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is a hardened ex-convict who spent sixteen years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released from prison he has nothing but the shabby clothes on his back. A bishop takes pity on him and gives him shelter in his home. In the night, Valjean steals the family’s silverware and disappears.
When the police apprehend him and bring him back to the bishop’s home, the bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean, and he runs to get two sterling candlesticks that, he says, he’d forgotten to include. By this single act of grace, Jean Valjean’s life is transformed. From that moment on, he devotes himself to helping others in need.
Where do we see grace in our world? There are volunteers who devote time and energy to helping others; there are affluent people and some not so affluent people who donate to charities; neighbours help neighbours and sometimes strangers help strangers. I know that grace is out there but perhaps we have to look a little too hard to see it, and think too much to practice it ourselves.
I have a friend whose husband lost his job, became an alcoholic, had an affair and finally left. My friend had to support their three young children on her own, pay the mortgage, and manage the home—all under the stress and emotional upheaval of a broken life. The father became an inconstant presence in the children’s lives and made no financial contribution for years. All the while, my friend encouraged her children to maintain a relationship with their father, and she refrained from speaking badly about him. She wanted her children to know that they were loved by both parents and though he had done some bad things, he was not a bad man. For many years he was invited to share Christmas morning with the family. This is grace in action. I don’t know how she did it, or where she got her strength, but one can see the power of her grace in the three very fine children she has raised.
Grace can be found in the neighbour who mows your lawn (without being asked) when you’re out of town because he knows it’s the last thing you’ll want to do when you get home.
We see it in people who spend more time than they have to spare, helping someone with a personal struggle.
We see it when people open their minds to other perspectives despite their own strong opinions.
It’s in the person who lends a hand when it's the worst possible time for them.
We find it in forgiveness, especially when we don't think it's deserved.
If only we could see, and practice, grace more often. If politicians, business people, and faith communities paid closer attention to the significance of grace, perhaps we’d have a little less strife in our world. I still like the word ‘love’ but it has lost its first place standing. Unlike love, grace cannot die. Love, forgiveness, kindness, joy, and compassion emerge from GRACE. I hope it becomes everybody’s favourite word.