Grasping for Grace – Sacred Sunday

By: Bonnie
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 becausechoose 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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20 Responses to Grasping for Grace – Sacred Sunday

  1. Stephen Marsh on June 24, 2012 at 6:49 AM

    I liked that.

    What do you do when you feel marginalized? Nicely said.

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  2. Mike S on June 24, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    This is a profound principle. It is the basis of Nishkam Karma as described beautifully in the Bhagavad Gita. Basically, it means that you simply do what is expected without worrying about the results or outcome, but do it for the sake of doing it. And ironically, without worry about the outcome, you will receive a higher level of reward than if you did it trying to receive that reward.

    It’s much like this – simply live well, work hard like the prodigal son’s brother or the early morning laborer, and let things take care of themselves.

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  3. Howard on June 24, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    Envy and coveting are just another form of lust.  Letting them go returns you to the present and to those with whom a relationship is important including your relationship with God.  Obedience to the law resulting in promised blessings (pay)  is God’s way of of turning our immature wanting into motivation to grow, eventually we transcend this trade off for a personal relationship with him and the law falls away as it becomes irrelevant.  Giving up expectations and thoughts about pay approaches accepting things as they are rather than clinging to the way we want them to be, when we do our suffering stops.

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  4. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 12:59 PM

    I was pretty much sold on this post when I got to this line:

    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.

    That being said, I still struggle. The three suggestions you have (admit you’re hurt; give up your expectations; don’t think about the pay) are definitely easier said than done.

    Especially 2 and 3.

    Giving up on expectations…I think that’s what led me to realize it was OK not to believe in God. I just felt that belief in God came with so many “expectations” about what that God should do (I think you see this in many atheist arguments against God…for example, the problem of evil comes from an expectation of what “good” is and what God is with respect to that “good.”) So, instead of trying to rack my brain to try to make it work with a universe that just doesn’t seem to fit, I just don’t worry about it.

    But still…I have problems with expectations for myself, for other people, etc. Some of it are problems of justice (yes, I expect people to treat others fairly…), but most of these are ultimately ego problems, to be sure…but even though I recognize this, I can’t just say, “OK, I’m going to kill the ego in a day” and then do it…it takes time…

    As for the last one…don’t think about the pay…that’s tricky as well…I think the story that really put it best to me was one I heard at school.

    So, say that you find a wallet on the ground. The wallet has a sizable amount of money in it. You think you’ll do the right thing and find out to whom the wallet belongs and return it to them. So, you scour for clues…it takes you a significant amount of time, trying to go through this guys’ friends that you’ve only really found out from context clues (notes in the wallet, Facebook stalking, etc.,) and ultimately, you arrange to meet up with the guy.

    You’re expecting that he’ll be really happy to get his wallet back. Yep, you’re the good guy, right?

    He takes one look at the wallet, counts the money, and says, “I see you’ve already taken your share.” He adds a sarcastic, “Thanks a lot” and walks away.

    ^What would your reaction be here?

    Personally, I don’t expect “rewards” from returning stuff to people, but I also don’t expect to be accused of stealing from them when I’ve returned stuff to them. I’d be pretty pissed off in this scenario.

    But that’s exactly my flaw. My capacity to do good shouldn’t be based on receiving thanks, or receiving blessings, or whatever else. I should be willing to do good even if no one else recognizes it.

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  5. Becca on June 24, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    I like your “admit your hurt” admonition.

    Anecdote to follow:

    One of my husband’s home teaching families had a crisis a while ago. Their mom ended up in the hospital with a potentially life threatening problem. She called us asking if my husband could give her a blessing, and if her kids (who were understandably shaken) could stay with us (they were older and could stay home alone, but I wouldn’t want to stay home by myself with my mom in the hospital with something scary).

    Anyway, the next day we took her kids up to the hospital to visit her, and as we chatted for a little bit (I informed her that I had called the RS president and her VTers as soon as she had called and asked for a blessing), she mentioned that a year ago she had been in the hospital for a similar life-threatening issue and that no one had done ANYTHING.

    I wanted to say, “Well, obviously – no one can help you if you don’t ask for help.”

    We can’t be cranky about no one reaching out to help us if we don’t let anyone know we have a weakness.

    Many people who are struggling and feeling wounded (the wounded laborer you speak of) look like Julie Beck (i.e., RS super star) from the outside. I have experienced this several times – where someone I thought was a veritable spiritual rock turned out to be suffering through greater trials than I could ever hope to endure, and they needed help.

    I myself have been in that situation (where I have had to swallow my pride and ask for help when I feel like “I can do it all by myself.” – what are we, a bunch of 2 year olds?!)

    also, I liked that you pointed out that it is hard to tell sometimes if you are wounded, a wanderer, or one who should be helping the wounded/wanderer.

    Excellent post.

    And grace is the answer. And it often doesn’t come when we think it should or want it to.

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  6. Angie F on June 24, 2012 at 4:15 PM

    Our stake president has a saying–when people complain about leaders or practices or principles, they are really giving you their spiritual temperature. They are announcing their status as wounded and/or wandering. Looking at things and at people that way has changed a lot for me about how I deal with others as well as when I feel those feelings within myself. It is hard to admit you’re hurt–but I think we’re more transparent than we would like to be and that allows us to give solace and to seek it more readily.

    Ancillary benefits to admitting you’re hurt: you let others see your frailties and humanities so they can less harshly judge their own. I really resonate with Bonnie’s anecdote about learning of others’ love only because she was forced to let the cracks in her facade show. I have also found that each time my cracks are showing, someone expresses relief, solidarity, even communion, as if to say ‘we’re all sinners here.’ For we are.

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  7. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 4:51 PM

    Thanks Stephen. :)

    #2/#3 – YES – attachment yields sorrow. What a profound principle! What an incredible release this gives our lives. Do you think we must believe in God to have this trusting sort of peace?

    #4 Andrew – Don’t you love it when someone say, “the answer is simply this” as in, we can solve the entire federal deficit if we just stop spending money and pay our bills. I was feeling particularly simplistic today!

    The problems you present of giving up expectations for others are profound and make our choice to live together in communities very complex. After all, laws are an example of collective expectations on which we largely all agree, but they are an absolute minimum. As you suggest, there are other levels of expectation, unwritten, but strangely binding.

    Your story was particularly relevant, and makes me wonder about living life as an atheist. It would seem to create some difficulties that are satisfied in a theistic worldview because we know, ultimately, God knows. How do you resolve that and require goodness of yourself? And why?

    #5 – Becca, I had a VT companion, the RS president (and my former MIL, but that doesn’t matter here) who used to say that EVERYONE needs to be nurtured, even leaders. It has opened my eyes to the walking wounded. I wish I were better at pointing others to grace, but it’s such an individual journey.

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  8. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 5:54 PM

    re 7

    Bonnie,

    As a total aside, the federal deficit example reminded me of the general advice about weight loss: “Just make calories in less than calories out!” Oh man, if only it were that simple…

    I think the thing with laws is that they aren’t so much an example of expectations…we don’t necessarily expect people to follow the laws, which is precisely why we have police/jails/fines/penalties/punishments — because in some ways, we actually *expect* that there are going to be some people who will want to break the law (but might be persuaded with the right incentive not to), and there will be some folks who break the laws regardless, and we just have to find a way to neutralize those folks.

    I think it’s interesting how the different sides can see things differently. For example, the idea that “ultimately, God knows” is not really satisfying to me. It poses a lot of problems in my opinion with other aspects of life and the universe, rather than being a solution to problems.

    I require goodness from myself because I have to live with myself. But that also means that “goodness” for me is immensely personal and subjective. (This is another area where theism/God doesn’t really help. So, the church says that God finds x, y, and z things good…but to me, these things don’t look or feel good. In fact, they feel miserable! Saying, “ultimately, God knows” doesn’t fix this.)

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  9. Howard on June 24, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    As Andrew said you can’t kill ego in a day, it takes time and I would add adversity but many times I have seen acceptance as the solution to suffering taught in a single therapy session and with a few brief follow ups they leap frogged over their suffering issue!  I’m a capitalist in the secular world, it is an economically efficient system precisly because it is based on greed and pay off expectation which demonstrates the current maturity level of humankind.  But I believe the Law of Consecration has the potential to teach ego reducing selflessness and love for others while providing for all and I believe plural marriage when practiced by both genders has the potential within a few generations to teach many how to reduce their jealousy, possessiveness and selfishness and move them towards compersion.

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  10. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 6:50 PM

    Andrew – but don’t you think laws are an expectation? Isn’t that the point? We do have an expectation that some people will break them, but our society is founded upon the expectation that most won’t. I’m going back to your original statement about the problem of evil being differing expectations of what constitutes good and therefore God. I understand that the differing definitions of good and therefore God can seem to negate his existence or his power to correlate or whatever (I’m not being flip, I’m just not putting words in your mouth), but doesn’t your capacity to do good imply an ability to discern a true definition of God?

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  11. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 7:55 PM

    re 10,

    Bonnie,

    If we could rely upon an expectation that most people wouldn’t break laws, we wouldn’t have need for them. I guess laws would be an expectation, after all, but an expectation that people will differ.

    As for the question you ask, it’s certainly possible. But humility would make me think as well that my capacity to do good (at least, what I think is good) doesn’t necessarily help me in discerning truth regarding the definition of God. Because I’m going to disagree with you on issues of morality, so one — or both — of us is bound to be incorrect. The fact that we (or any number of people) may have *different* intuitions about what good is doesn’t really speak well to our ability to discern the true definition of God at all.

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  12. honey on June 24, 2012 at 9:24 PM

    I gave a lesson in RS today on this talk! I wish I had seen your post before my lesson!
    I married young with the normal TBM expectations. It didn’t work out, spectacularly didn’t work and very publicly too. I didn’t have to admit I was hurt, it was obvious to anyone who knew me.
    I very unexpectedly remarried (a non member) in making my decision I realized it would not work if I carried my former expectations into my marriage and so I decided to only have expectations of myself.
    What a wonderful revelation life has been since that time (24 yrs.) Freeing in the best ways.
    My mantra became “do the right things, for the right reasons” in your words “don’t think about the pay”
    Another thing that helped was giving up responsibility for the use or misuse of others agency. As a mom of 7 I realized that I could not restrict the agency of my maturing children who had been taught the gospel. I could not take credit for their triumphs if I was not willing to take blame for their failures. I can celebrate with them or mourn with them when needed, but I no longer had to agonize over whether their sins were my fault.
    Elder Hollands talk was absolute balm to my soul. And I love what you have shared in this post.

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  13. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    AngieF – I missed your comment earlier (probably while I was typing) but I like the ideas your SP has shared. I was reading this morning the Savior’s words about what fouls us (not what goes into the mouth but what comes out) and I had that same thought: it’s a great tool for diagnosis. And I 100% agree that being vulnerable makes possible a fellowship that enriches all of us. It’s one of the reasons I love my ward so much – there’s a whole lot of that kind of sharing.

    honey – I’ve recently had some lessons in “bearing one another’s burdens” and realized that we’re supposed to bear them only temporarily, on the way to the Savior, not permanently. My oldest daughter was the one who taught me that I couldn’t take credit for her successes or her failures and allow her to live her own life. I have to agree, and letting that go is actually very freeing. I do my best and leave the rest to grace.

    Thanks for chiming in!

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  14. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    Andrew – I suppose not. That would leave us needing angels, huh? :)

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  15. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 10:25 PM

    re 14,

    Bonnie, ok, you’ve lost me now. :)

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  16. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 11:01 PM

    Getting late and my brain is feeling sinus pressure. I was referring to your points in #11. If we can’t really use our conscience to discern the character of God, we are dependent on angels … a la Alma 12:29.

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  17. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 11:03 PM

    The angels appear to be just as muddled as the people, unfortunately.

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  18. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 11:04 PM

    Stuttering angels?

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  19. Andrew S on June 24, 2012 at 11:09 PM

    Angels telling folks different things, etc.,

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  20. Bonnie on June 24, 2012 at 11:10 PM

    Ah yes, well, it appears we have to live by faith … or lack thereof … what an interesting world.

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