One day when I was in school, I was stuck by how life extended before me as a dreary stream of expectation and duty. I instinctively knew that it was a disgrace to be lazy or undisciplined. It’s terrible how I sound like Miss Goody-Two-Shoes; the only thing I can say in my defence is that I was a very conscientious twelve-year-old trying to find my way in the world. Being good was the only way I knew how.
It was the 1980s and I was attending Assunta Primary School. We had a few lessons of agama – religion – in our timetable. The Muslim girls went for Islam, the Catholics for Catechism and the rest went for Moral. In my mind, Catechism was more exciting than Moral because you sometimes got to leave the school grounds, cross the road, and visit the convent where gold light slanted in from long thin windows in the white chapel walls.
And that’s why I went along for a few Catechism classes, even though I was not a Catholic. I remember one lesson in particular, this one held in an airy classroom on the second floor. A nun, our teacher, stood before approximately forty girls, all of us seated in rows of twos behind wooden desks.
Teacher-Nun: If you believe in Christ, you will never die.
Me (thinking): This is incredible news. How is it that I am twelve and have never heard of this? Never die?
Teacher-nun: You will never die, spiritually.
Me (thinking): Ah, that’s the catch. Never die spiritually. I knew it was too good to be true.
The following year, in high school, there was an additional offering during Religion: Bible Studies. In the Woodlands – a concreted eating area by the canteen where a few valiant trees stood – a volunteer teacher gave a fuller explanation of how Christ died to pay the price for human sin. This time, I became a believer.
The crazy concept of grace
It was in school that I learnt the acronym GRACE: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. The acronym is simple, but grace is profound. It a concept especially crazy for people sold-out to an ethic of hard-work. Success is contingent upon effort. Approval is tied to performance. How crazy is the idea that you might be given something valuable, not because of what you have done, but because of what someone else has done? Grace is like inheritance, but without biological ties.
‘In Christ you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and knowledge.’
Paul’s letter to the early church
This has been true for me, personally. To borrow a line from a nameless someone, I am a nobody and come from a line of nobodies. Only after I received this grace, did I have a hope worth speaking of. Before that I was just following a predetermined path, completing a series of exercises: study, work, marriage, child-rearing, death.
My writing springs from the hope that life has significance that is not contingent upon successful execution of these steps. Part of my day to day struggle is how to deal with job insecurity, the emptying nest, and herculean effort that does not lead to success. Maybe grace in those situations is a truer understanding of what success is.
Grace is not leniency. Christ might have paid for human wrongdoing in God’s ledger, but in this world, the criminal still serves time. One of the best stories I have heard on grace was on an ABC podcast titled: Mr Ordinary goes to Jail. In 2013, a judge sentenced Wil Patterson to 3 years in jail for a white collar crime . An old friend, whom Wil hadn’t spoken to for ten years, contacted Wil’s father and said, ‘When he comes out, there’s a job here if he wants it.’ It was a lifeline. It was grace.
Grace: hard to define, but you know when you’ve received it.
Grace and Disgrace Part 2 next week.