Forms of Grace
And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
Poor Joseph. Birth order and his father’s feelings were not his fault. He was only 17. But still, you’d think common sense or modesty would have warned him off of telling his brothers about his dreams. They weren’t terribly nice guys, for instance Simeon and Levi had murdered all the men in Shechem’s household as they lay recovering from circumcisions. Clearly Joseph underestimated his brothers’ hatred for him, and would have been murdered himself if Reuben hadn’t stepped in and gotten him sold into slavery instead. (Reuben, who may have felt he owed their father some form of apology after he’d slept with Mama Bilhah). Joseph was apparently still peeved at his brothers many years later, because when they showed up in Egypt he “spake roughly unto them” and put the fear of God into them by framing Benjamin for theft before revealing his identity and insisting that they all move to Egypt, reuniting the happy family. All this is of course a prelude to the enslavement of the Israelites and their dramatic exodus back to Caanan (a land flowing with milk and honey–no going back to Egypt to buy corn ).
This story is about forging a covenant people. It’s such good drama that Hollywood, Broadway, and Disney have all had turns at telling it, and like all good drama, the story involves flawed characters whose motives aren’t always admirable. Here we have a cast of sinners motivated by jealousy, retribution, and the will to survive, whose lives turn out to form an enduring story of faith. God works in mysterious ways.
In Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, Theo loses his mother in an act of terrorism. This loss is an inflection point in his life, as he says, “though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier.” Functionally parentless, Theo spends his teenage years in the home of family friends, then foraging for necessities with his only friend Boris, and finally living with a benevolently oblivious antiques dealer in New York. Theo and Boris do a lot of drugs and drink lots of alcohol, but do a good job of keeping a pet dog alive. Theo grows up to be a crooked businessman, and the woman he helplessly loves is unavailable. He’s an unrelentingly miserable character. Yet, his life produces an event that is very right, and wouldn’t have happened without him or Boris. Boris puts it this way (I condensed this from a couple pages of dialogue):
“The world is much stranger than we can know or say. And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do?…good doesn’t always follow from good deeds, nor bad deeds result from bad, does it? Even the wise and good cannot see the end of all actions. Scary idea! Remember Prince Myshkin in The Idiot?…Well, Idiot was very disturbing book to me. In fact it was so disturbing I have never really read very many fictions after…because all Myshkin ever did was good… unselfish… he treated all persons with understanding and compassion and what resulted from this goodness? Murder! Disaster! … Very dark message to this book. ‘Why be good.’ But…what if–is more complicated than that? What if maybe opposite is true as well?…What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
Or as the benevolent antiques dealer puts it, “Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?”
A few years ago my dad was riding his motorcycle home from work when a car cut sharply in front of him. He was unable to stop, and went flying over the car. He always wears a helmet, but unfortunately helmets only protect the head. One leg was broken in a half-dozen places, and an intestinal artery was severed, causing so much internal bleeding that he required 6 units of blood. When the ER surgeon was rapidly tying things off in his abdominal cavity she noticed a tumor on his kidney. It turned out to be cancer, he had that kidney removed, and he’s fine now (although he can’t run anymore because of the leg injuries). Kidney cancer is notoriously deadly because usually by the time a person has any noticeable symptoms it has metastasized. The ER surgeon found my dad’s kidney tumor before he experienced any symptoms; she saved his life twice.
I think these stories have one thing in common, which is that they are manifestations of grace. I’m not talking about silver linings, where a benefit is inherent to a challenging situation. That’s not grace to me. I’m talking about transforming things that are ill-conceived, tragic, or even immoral into things that are right and good. That transformation is not a foregone conclusion, in fact just the opposite. Grace operates when it’s neither expected nor deserved. And I think it’s not the case that tragedy or waste or sin are always transformed. Some losses can’t be restored in this world; opportunity costs are real. Some lives begin and end tragically, some cancers are found too late. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grace changes things.
The miracle of grace is that somehow God takes the tattered and stained cloth of human life and rearranges the atoms to make it whole, not by applying soap and patches (to make a cleaner, more functional, but essentially unchanged fabric), but by an uncomprehendable transformation. Being born again is such a transformation . Alma called it a mighty change of heart . It’s intrinsically impossible to work this change by ourselves because we do not make ourselves; we are the clay, not the potter . We have to want the change (Alma says it happens by faith), but we rely on God to execute it. I think this is why grace in the context of sin is a miracle. I don’t find it miraculous that God can forgive sins by having Jesus pay the price for them. That seems transactional to me, because it’s shifting who pays for the soap and patches. What’s miraculous is that by some means I can’t understand, made possible by Jesus, God remakes the fabric of our spirits, atom by atom. I don’t know what to call that. Rebirth works up to a point, but birth is a discrete event and transformation by grace isn’t done all at once. Change of heart is a decent metaphor, but the change doesn’t feel “mighty.” It’s gradual, uneven, unexpected, and undeserved change that grace works in me. It seems like grace works this way in the world, too.
The uneven nature of grace might make it capricious, except that the undeserved part means it can’t be. Without entitlement, grace cannot be inconstant. What is there for me to do, then, but to open my eyes to it and thank God?
 We think of corn as maize (a new world crop), but the word corn also means the leading crop grown in a region. Corn in the Bible probably refers to wheat or barley.  It’s an unrelentingly depressing book. Which is no reason not to read it! A reason not to read it is that it’s way too long for the story it tells; it gets tedious sometimes. I’m no literary expert, but I’m surprised it won the Pulitzer. It has some great characters (Theo is not one of them – he seems wooden compared with the other characters and in the end I didn’t really care what happened to him), and the last 10% of the book explores some interesting philosophical, even theological, questions. But you wade through a lot of words to make it that far.  Alma 5:14  John 3:5  Romans 9:21