When people hear the word “grace,” they often think of prayers before dinner, the poise of a ballerina, or the amazing words of a famous hymn. Me? I think of a Port-a-Potty and a $5 bill. I have my late, great grandfather to thank for that.
Richard Frederick Lotter, whom we called Pop Pop Dick, was a factory worker and custodian for most of his life. Although he never earned a lot of money, he was rich in generosity—and I remember him as always being kind and patient with his grandchildren.
I also remember him coughing—a lot. From years inhaling smoke and chemicals, he developed emphysema, and the summer of my fifth grade year—1985—he was dying of it. He came to live with us and eventually he got so weak he could hardly move—except to slink in and out of bed to use the portable toilet in his room: The Port-a-Potty.
One day, my mom asked me to empty that toilet. It was a simple task, really, which consistent only in dumping a bucket into the toilet in our bathroom—but I dug in my heels and grumbled about it. “That’s gross,” I said. “Why do I have to do that?”
“Do it,” my mom said. “And be quiet: If Pop-Pop hears you, he’ll feel like he’s a burden on us.”
I knew that was true. I think Pop-Pop was embarrassed that he had to be served. But that didn’t change the fact that I walked into his room irritated, indignant that I had perform so menial—and fecal—a task. My Pop-Pop deserved better.
I entered the room in full brat mode, though stealthily masking my poutiness—or so I thought. Once I had emptied the bucket and returned it to the Port-a-Potty, Pop-Pop called me over.
“Hey, Vaughn,” he said. “C’mere for a second.”
Okay, Pop-Pop. What do you want?
He smiled at me through his coughing.
“Emptying that pot,” he said. “It’s gross, isn’t it?”
My heart took the escalator into my throat.
Oh no, I thought. He heard what I said to mom.
I braced for a lecture, a tongue lashing. I don’t know why, since that wasn’t like Pop-Pop at all. But I deserved one—I think I knew that. That’s why I expected a blow to come. Instead:
“I’m sorry you had to do that,” he said. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Thank you? Pop-Pop’s response to my complaining was…gratitude?
But Pop-Pop wasn’t done. He stretched out his arm, still lean and muscular from all those years of factory work. His hand was closed tight. He held something. He motioned for me to hold out my hand and I did, not really knowing what he was doing.
I put my open hand under his closed fist. Slowly, weakly, he opened up his fingers and I felt something folded and papery and crisp fall into my palm. I took it and looked down at it laying on my palm.
It was a five dollar bill.
Five dollars! Am I dreaming?
That was 1985, not 2013! Calculating inflation and the various economic factors, $5 back then would be worth a lot more today. Probable…like…
A BILLION DOLLARS.
Well, okay, maybe not—but that’s what it felt like at the time. $5 could almost buy you two G.I. Joe figures. It was only $2.99 short of the price of the A-Team Moving Target Game. And, good Lord, do you know how many Pixie Stix and Razzles I could purchase with five guacamoles? My candy supply would be funded through the end the month! The year! Heck! Through the end of Reagan’s 2nd term!
As I was reveling in my bounty, my grandfather spoke up again:
“Thanks again, Vaughn,” he said. “I think you are a great grandson.”
That’s when it hit me. My grandfather had responded to my complaint with thanksgiving. My reprobate attitude had been met with reward. I couldn’t have told you—at that very moment—what had brought conviction to my heart and melted it. But I felt it. And, every time I think of this story, I am still moved to tears. Because what my Pop-Pop exhibited in that moment was what the world needs more than anything else:
Unmerited favor. Something richer and greater than mercy: that which response to aggression and hostility…with undeserved kindness and lavish love.
Life is a grace. The death of Christ is a grace. Everything from the hand of God is grace.
As Christians, Jesus calls us to “love our enemies.” Whether your enemy is a terrorist, a political opponent, or even—God forbid—your own spouse, the Lord calls us to live and act with grace.
It’s not easy. In fact, it’s impossible—apart from the grace of God. But it is the one thing—the only thing—that can possibly heal the hurt and pain that we inflict on one another. It is what will restore shalom to our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.
Today, if you use a $5 bill, don’t think of payment, but reward. Don’t think of earned wages, but of unearned kindness. And don’t think of money, but of the priceless gift of God’s grace.
Thanks to Pop-Pop, I know I will.