Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.” --Saint Ignatius Loyola
Through many dangers Toils and snares We have already come 'Twas grace hath brought Us safe thus far And grace will lead us home -Amazing Grace, John Newton
My grandfather 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, I remember him as rich in generosity—and always kind and patient with his grandchildren.
I also remember him coughing—a lot. After years of inhaling smoke and chemicals, he developed emphysema, and by the time he came to live with us the summer of my fifth-grade year, it was killing him. 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 Porta Potty.
One day, my mom asked me to empty that toilet. It was a simple task, really—just dumping a bucket into the toilet in our bathroom. “Simple,” however, did not mean it was pleasant, and I dug in my heels and grumbled. “That’s gross,” I protested. “Why do I have to do that?”
“Do it,” my mom replied. “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. I deserved better.
Though I entered the room in full brat mode, I managed to stealthily mask my poutiness—or so I thought. Once I had emptied the bucket and returned it to the Porta 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. 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—I think I realized I deserved one. But instead of a blow, I heard:
“I’m sorry you had to do that. 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, holding something. He motioned for me to hold out my own hand; not really understanding, I slid my open palm 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 then looked down.
It was a five-dollar bill.
Five dollars! Am I dreaming?
That was 1985, not 2013! Taking inflation and various other economic factors into account, five dollars back then would be worth a lot more today. Probably . . . like . . .
A BILLION DOLLARS.
Okay, maybe not—but that’s what it felt like at the time. Five dollars 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 Pixy Stix and Razzles I could purchase with five guacamoles? My candy supply would be funded through the end the month! The year! Heck, the end of Reagan’s second term!
As I reveled in my bounty, my grandfather spoke up again:
“Thanks again, Vaughn,” he said. “I think you are a great grandson.”
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 in that moment, Pop-Pop exhibited what we need from God more than anything else.
It’s what the world needs from us more than anything else. And it’s what you need more than anything to drive you toward pursuing your full potential, pressing on when you falter and fail, and recovering quickly when you make a mess of your life.
The Bible talks about grace all over the place.
“For by grace you have been saved; and this not of yourselves. It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (Saint Paul quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:10).
Jesus never used the word “grace,” but he lived it.
He extended the grace of healing to those suffering from sickness.
He extended the grace of forgiveness to those struggling in sin.
He extended the grace of his power to those oppressed and possessed by demons.
He even asked God to show grace to those who nailed him to the cross.
The cross itself was the ultimate act of grace. On it, the King of Glory gave his life for those who hated and rejected him. It was the most perfect expression of God’s love for his enemies.
Grace is unmerited favor. Something richer and greater than mercy: that which responds to aggression and hostility with undeserved kindness and lavish love.
Of all the passages in Scripture that extol the grace of God, my favorite is Jesus’s story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24). To summarize it very briefly: Jesus says that there were two sons. One day, the younger son went to his father and asked for his inheritance—basically saying, “I want my money more than I want a relationship with you. I’ll live as if you were dead.” The father generously agreed, at which point the younger son went off into the world and squandered all the money that had been given to him. After hitting rock bottom, he ended up working in a pigsty, which for ancient Jews was about as unclean and detestable a fate as you could experience.
Finally, the son came to his senses and thought, “I have to go home.” He figured he’d return with his tail between his legs and grovel. Assuming his father had already disowned him as a son, he came up with a speech to try to persuade his dad to just let him work as a hired hand.
When the son arrived home, what happened next would have been surprising—no, shocking, even scandalous—to the original listeners.
According to Jewish custom, there was only one time a father was really “allowed” to run: that was in battle. Otherwise, it was considered beneath his dignity. A noble father stays put, and people come to him!
Guess what happened in Jesus’s story? The father saw his son returning home . . .
. . . and he ran to welcome him back!
What’s even more mind-blowing: when the son began his little speech about becoming a hired hand, his father would have none of it. He was so delirious that his son had returned that he put the best clothes on him, slid a gold ring onto his finger (a sign of belonging), and called for household-wide celebration.
The older brother—the goodie-two-shoes of the family, who’d stayed behind to work on the estate while his brother squandered his money—was pissed. He couldn’t believe the father was showing such mercy, such generosity, such grace!
But the father responded: “My son [. . .] you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (15:31-32).
What incredible mercy.
What incredible grace!
Do you understand that Jesus is saying? This is what God is like! This is how he relates to us!
It doesn’t matter how weak we are.
It doesn’t matter if we’ve disgraced him and his name.
It doesn’t matter if we’ve made a train wreck of our lives.
When we turn to him, or return to him, he runs to us! He puts the best clothes on our back and the best shoes on our feet. He puts a ring on our finger and calls for a celebration!
God hears us complaining and whining about emptying the Porta Potty. And he gives us five dollars.
He gives us five MILLION dollars. That’s how overwhelming and overflowing his grace is.
So now do you understand a little better the significance of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10?
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Out of sheer, delirious, intoxicated gratitude for the grace of God, St. Paul “worked harder” than anyone else, passionately driven to make the most of his life. He knew that the grace of God would sustain through good times and bad, through successes and failures, in epic battles with the Devil and knockout rounds with the sin in his own heart.
Over the course of my life, I have read academic explanations of God’s grace and listened to sermons and lectures delivered by learned preachers and theologians. But nothing has stayed with me, or left a more significant impact on my soul, than God’s grace given to me in the form of a crisp five-dollar-bill. In fact, time after time, as I have found myself slow to trust God and hesitant to move forward smartly and unafraid, I’ve visualized Pop-Pop Dick giving me payment and praise I didn’t earn or deserve—and I remembered that the little bit of grace my Grandfather extended to me that day is but a drop in the vast ocean of grace that our Heavenly Father pours out on me—on us---every moment of our lives.
The blazing nuclear power at the center of St. Paul’s life, my life, and yours is God’s grace. The very foundation of our sacred drive, our ability to be focused, disciplined, gritty, confident, hopeful, and tenacious in the pursuit of our potential—is God’s unparalleled mercy and love.
When we really understand how much God is for us, we know that nothing can stand against us . . .
. . . and nothing can stop us.
That’s the key to becoming a God-called, grace-driven force of nature and force for good in the world.
Accept it. And take action!
God’s grace is everything.
Accept it, and you’ll find the motivation to pursue your potential.
Embrace it, and you’ll be able to do anything.