Sitting on my kitchen table is a gingko leaf I picked up walking back from Target. I always loved the shape of these leaves and it is rare to find gingko trees in Chicago. I know of only one in the neighborhood and as I walked past it, I saw it had shed a number of leaves. I scoped the ground for the best preserved leaf I could find and picked it up. I had every intention of putting it back down, but continued to look at it as I made my way home until the leaf found a new home in my kitchen.
I picked it up because of a young friend of mine. Actually she is more of an acquaintance, but I have found her to be kind and there is not a trait I admire more in another person. My friend often wears earrings that are gingko leaves cast in gold. I do not know the reason, but the frequency with which she wears them suggests they must have been given to her by her partner or a member of her family. Often one can see these because she keeps her hair pulled back and clipped in a way that reminds me of someone I use to know. And the earrings being what they are, remind me of someone as well. They are stories separated by considerable time.
I recently went on a small tear about grace and obligation and how it relates to my impending personal new year. You can see it in the last post. This really has something to do with the leaf, for my friend is part of a community that knows what it is to honor both these things and the stories of which the leaf reminds me points to those who know this as well.
I don’t know when we become mature enough to see life about being more than just receiving giftedness, but also imparting the thing. I think it must be when we have our first stirrings of love, that time in late youth when someone starts to become more important to you than you are to yourself. It is an unusual time in life and I am sure the totality of it is something not everyone gets to, though nearly everyone gets to the romantic part of it.
For me that story is known by those closest to me. It involves raising money in the cold Marion Ohio winter so children living in poverty could receive Christmas gifts and listening to Johannes Bach in the lessening heat of a Marion Ohio late summer afternoon. It is that story that is tinged with the wistfulness of youthful love as well as the awakening of adult responsibility. It is a story that is very much in the past, but also one that taught me about the type of people I like being with, the kind of people you give leaves cast in gold.
That story is not a significant one when it comes to an outcome. Where I come from this type of thing will often end with homes and children, but for her and I….the world was wide and we did not pursue the story of many a Ohio high school teenager. That was good for she has met the person who has given her not a leaf, but a ring cast in gold and I have come to know many things that has imparted on me the greatest graces. Yet there is significance to the story. One thing we did together was go weekly to a school for those with cognitive disabilities (there was no mainstreaming at the time) and help plan the basketball games and dances for the school’s students. It was in that context I came to know her, though I had met her shortly before in a circumstance that would bring me to know the place of grace and obligation.
It was the previous summer, when with no employment, I was left to volunteer at a local church to work with those who had cerebral palsy and MR. It was that miserable directionless time in life which is called teen angst. It was also the summer for the cure to this malady. That happened when a friend invited me to her church. (That story is found elsewhere.) Eventually that invitation led me to other communities including the one where someone I use to know played Bach on the piano and another where I met the woman with the gingko earrings. They are radically different stories separated by considerable time, but both give me cause to think on grace. And in between meeting each of these I have learned a few things about grace.
I learned there is a difference between primitive grace and a mature one. Both are beautiful and the argument can be made that the primitive one is more so for it does not require anything of us other than our acceptance. This is the one sided grace of God and parents. It is the relationship of the lover and the beloved. This is where we can play the part of princess having gifts lavished on us and being swept off our feet by the one strong enough to carry us. It is the grace of a seven year old at Christmas who doesn’t understand the money for the gifts came from hard labor and overtime. In a far greater way, it is the grace of receiving God’s good gift of the resurrection without having to bear the cross ourselves.
Then there is mature grace. This is the one that obliges us. It asks us to give back to God, the community, and another person. It is the grace which says “you are no longer a child.” It knows the comfort we received in our childhood sickness from our parents involved their suffering as they worried over us and it is the grace that says we can never understand the gravity of the cross, though our contrition (and penance?) is still demanded of us. It is obligatory, but bears one important mark that still marks it as grace….it is born in our desire and that is a rather important distinction.
For it to be grace, our obligation cannot be carried out with resentment or without joy. When someone says something to the effect of, “I need you to do this for me,” it must be what you want or it is no grace, but only obligation. It can still come from a place of “agape” love, where our joy resides with the greater good and the good we wish others to have, but it lacks any sense of those other types of love from which the warmth of grace springs. In short grace is never an entitlement, but rather always God’s and sometimes another person’s good pleasure.
Grace is immeasurable on a primitive level, but measurable on the mature one. We cannot measure the utter joy of being accepted by that which is greater than us or being “accepted in spite of ourselves,” but we can see the good effect of the mature grace. It happens with every yes we give to life’s greatest callings.
A mature grace is always seen in the particular, even as it unites us to the universal. The people and places of grace have names and their names carry more impact than all the broad and esoteric terminology we give to grace as a universal construct. When we tell the story of salvation, it is rooted in a place and time even if the effect is broader than this. In God’s proclamation, all people should know redemption, but the story itself took place in particular landscape among particular people.
The same is true of our personal stories where persons and places have a potency that the wide world cannot, though these very stories make us good for the world and inspire us to the greatest acts of love and kindness. I think back on all those times I have been kind and I know they all have involved another who has imparted kindness to me and made me capable of doing the greatest of tasks, which without their presence would have been mere obligation.
Fortunately I have known grace and with it some obligation, though I do often need to be reminded of this. To do so I think I will keep for a while longer the gingko leaf on the table.