“But will you recognize my face
When God’s awful grace
Strips me of my jacket and my vest,
And reveals all the treasure in my chest?” – Joe Pug, “Hymn 101”
How can I ever forget it? It was the phone call. It was that ringing phone that threatened our family for almost a decade. Usually when that phone rang, test results were relayed; while in the meantime, fear and dread would find a crack to slither it’s way into our lives. That’s the thing about cancer; it takes a relatively benign object, and turns it into something horrible. And on this day, this early July day, cancer finally fulfilled its threat.
Being an awkward fifteen year-old kid who had just finished my freshman year of high school, it had been a long summer. In late May of 2003, my mother, after a high school orchestra concert, had taken severely ill. By this point in our lives, after a decade of cancer, this turn of events seemed to be nothing new.
But, this time, it was different.
Things never really got better. They seemed to just keep getting worse, and despite the best attempts of everyone around me, I could sense what was happening. You see, the thing is, that sort of like the Spirit, it’s difficult to describe death in the abstract, but when you finally see it, you instinctively know just what it is.
It wasn’t just physically or emotionally different this time around, it was existentially different. My mom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 1993, and had gone into a coma. As the story goes, I had a dream where God had promised me that everything would be fine, and I relayed this to my terrified father on the steps of our front porch one afternoon, when he was asking me if I understood what was going on.
And miraculously, she was.
But this time, there was to be no such promise. From the outset, on that May evening, I knew that the cancer had finally taken its toll. Somewhere in the depth of my messy and confused teenage angst, I knew that this was the end for my mom. And instinctively, I also knew that it was going to strip me of whatever pretenses, emotional mountaintops, and adolescence that I had left.
And when that phone rang, 11 o’clock on July 9th, 2003, the only words that my devastated father could utter, in tears, were: “Eric, she’s gone.”
And I, ever the emotionally engaged and empathetic teenager, got off the phone with my dad, promptly resumed my game of SSX on the GameCube, and numbed myself to reality.
Not realizing, that in the span of that phone call, the plates of my reality had shifted beyond any recognition.
As I write this, I recognize that this is the first time I have really put down on paper what happened and what it felt like. It’s taken nine long years, and encountering more death than any twenty-four year old should have to, to get to this point.
I put those lyrics by Joe Pug at the top of the page, because listening to them in the car the other day is what prompted me to write this little essay, the idea of that God’s grace can be awful.
For the first, say, twenty years of my life, my faith in Jesus was nearly purely intellectual. By eight-grade confirmation, I was reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, attempting to get a grasp on the idea of grace. This, of course, led me to write in my confirmation sermon, that one “didn’t have to go to Church to have faith and to be loved by God, because that would be works, not grace.”
Let me tell you, the glares of the older folks in the crowd could have killed.
But here’s the thing, when my mom died in 2003, no idea of God’s grace, no faith in God’s omnipotence, no faith in modern medicine could have made me feel better.
In fact, my mom’s death was an awful grace of God. Not so much that God was responsible for it, so much as that God made something awful, and didn’t make me feel better. Instead, it began the long project of stripping me of myself, and my ability to have faith in something that I could comprehend.
In many ways, I think that Joe Pug’s question articulates something that I have yearned to speak of: “will you recognize my face, when God’s awful grace has stripped me of my jacket and my vest?” When I returned to high school that next fall, I was different, in a mysterious and awkward way. I think many didn’t recognize me after being stripped of the ground of my being, and those who did, I was either too numb or too self involved to acknowledge.
Though they tried, the entire awfulness of the situation turned me into a narcissistic addict who didn’t like the feeling of being existentially naked in front of my peers and God, so I lied and manipulated. Instead of accepting that grace can be awful sometimes, I pushed back, further bunkering myself into the rational, into the emotional, into the controllable. I wanted my grace to be nice, to feel good, to make me stronger, and more of a leader. While God wanted grace to show me reality, and that neither the jacket of Lutheran theology, nor any vest of the explainable could save me from death; I just wanted to find new clothing.
Your mileage might vary on this, but don’t let it be said that I think that Adam and Eve clothing their nakedness from God was a nice story. It clearly is something lived out everyday.
I suspect that most people, myself included, don’t particularly like the things that are what make up God’s grace, those awful things which strip us of ourselves; the death, the chaos, the brokenness all around us that God makes into grace, showing us a different promise.
I think that’s one of the main reasons that we become addicts, why I became an addict, was to clothe myself from being exposed, exposed in my doubt, in my weakness, in my fragility, to God and to the world around me.
Because I couldn’t deal with this reality: God’s grace is not an escape from death, but new life through actual death.
Lest God misses an opportunity to show this awful grace: my grandpa died in 2004, and my grandma and my wife’s grandfather within days of each other in December of 2009.
Which brings us to this, the ninth year of this journey into the awfulness of death. And it is this year that has finally laid bare whatever addictions and intellectual fortresses I had attempted to clothe myself with.
This year, two remarkable events stripped me in an unrecognizably new way: CPE and the suicide of one of my student’s parents.
In October, I began my first unit of CPE, a thorough psycho-theological ringer, in which the seminarian serves as a functioning chaplain, usually in a hospital. Here’s the kicker, on my second day at the hospital, I found myself alone (which wasn’t supposed to happen), praying over the dead body of an African-American man and his family. In that moment, I began to realize that whatever intellectual doubts, whatever emotional doubts, whatever clothing I had to keep myself from being recognized by God were being replaced, not by more faith, not by more intellectual assent, but by Christ. A shift began, that was fully recognized in January of this year.
On that January morning, I found myself, like nearly nine years before, on the end of a phone call, with nearly the exact same words being spoken to me: “Oh my god, he’s gone!” This time, it was a high school student from the youth group I help lead on the other end. Driving over to her house and arriving on the scene, I found that her dad had committed suicide.
That afternoon, driving home from their house, I found myself remarkably angry with God, probably for the first time in my life. I remember punching the steering wheel, and just yelling: “What the hell, God? Was there no other way? Why does she have to experience this awfulness? Why did I have to be there for another death?”
And I found myself, sad, full of doubt and intellectual anger, stripped bare and feeling fully recognized before God for the first time in my life. And it was there that something deep within my being changed, recognizing that God’s awful grace is this: that we are stripped bare, so we can be clothed with Christ, and Christ’s calling in the world.
We are not called to escape plans, and utopian dreams, but like Jesus, we are called to be broken and poured out, even unto death, for the sake of others.
And that’s my faith now, as opposed to nine years ago, it’s not intellectual or emotional, it doesn’t ride on spiritual highs and lows. My faith has become existential.
And that calling and faith of Jesus that makes up the depths of my being, did the same for my mom. Who had to experience that awful grace of death, and through it, be clothed by God, and give me new life from whence it must always come: death.