I have an app on my phone called Lookout that scans for viruses and keeps my phone safe. But the unexpected, and (to me) most important gift from Lookout is the message it displays in my notifications bar:
Everything is OK.
When I need reassurance, I turn on my phone and open my notifications bar. Everything is OK. It’s like a little high-tech mantra, delivered exactly when I need it, on demand. It’s a piece of Grace in a busy, busy world.
About five years ago, I received the same message in the utterly low-tech silence of a Quaker Meeting for Worship. It was the first time I understood why Friends are called Quakers, because at that moment Something spoke to me out of the silence so clearly and intensely that I began to shake.
It was several minutes, maybe most of an hour, before I had the courage to stand up and speak the message I had been given, and it is still one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. The message was about Grace (though I didn’t call it that at the time).
Let me go back to the beginning. I have spent a fair portion of my life being afraid. When I was young I was terrified that the Second Coming would occur and I would be left behind while my parents went on with Jesus. I was terrified of my dad dying in a war and I was terrified of my cat dying in a bear trap.
As an adult, my fears took on less obvious and sometimes purely symbolic forms. For several years I was afraid of a pair of jackals I felt were dogging my steps, always right behind me on the darkened stairs or lurking in the corner behind doors where I dared not look. I knew they weren’t real and yet they terrified me nonetheless. I was also intensely afraid of dying, but mostly I just felt afraid of nothing in particular.
It’s exhausting to be afraid all the time and I wanted relief. So on that particular morning, I sat in Meeting for Worship meditating on this question: “Why am I so afraid?” An answer came slowly, thus:
First, I remembered a time when no one I relied on was there for me when I needed them. I had been in a car accident, and the paramedics were callous and unconcerned, and refused to answer my terrified questions about what was happening to my body. I begged them to let me call my mom. They said she was on her way, when really they’d just left a cryptic message on the answering machine so that it took my parents several hours to figure out where I was. At the hospital, I was left in a cold hallway for what seemed like hours, strapped down and covered only with a thin sheet, cold. The nurses became angry with me for getting sick when they asked me to stand up for an x-ray. Afterward, I threw up while kneeling on a tiled bathroom floor. I sat against the wall of the toilet stall feeling too weak and scared to stand up, and no one came to get me. After a long time, I crawled on all fours out of the bathroom and back to the gurney where that same very thin sheet awaited. An irritated nurse hoisted me back up. Mom never came. No one ever bothered to tell me the results of my x-ray. They just came into the hall at some point and told me I was being discharged. They didn’t even ask if I had a way to get home.
When I arrived back at my dorm room, my roommate was gone and my keys were still in my totaled car. I was trudging to the cafeteria to look for help when Mom and Dad found me in the parking lot. Dad leaned out of the car window and asked, “How fast were you going?” Back in my room, my boyfriend told me I was over-dramatizing for attention because I had gone to the cafeteria in my bloody shirt, then he left me lying on my bed wondering: Why, if I am perfectly fine physically, do I feel so awful?
Remembering all this on that Sunday morning many years later, I understood why I was so afraid. If I couldn’t rely on Mom, Dad, the paramedics or nurses, my boyfriend or roommate, or even the doctors when I needed them most, how could I ever feel safe?
No wonder I was so afraid.
While I continued to brood on my fears, understanding them but not yet comforted, a seasoned Friend named Hildie stood up and told a story about finding an astonishingly beautiful, perfect shell on the beach. She didn’t want the shell, but it seemed too beautiful to leave lying there. So she picked it up and carried it with her through part of the day. Later, while Hildie was dining with a friend, a woman stopped at their table and exclaimed in joy and gratitude, for there beside Hildie lay the woman’s lost treasure, the beautiful shell she had found and then lost.
I stared at Hildie in astonishment, but I didn’t understand why I was so astonished until she explained the lesson of the story: Sometimes we are called to someone’s aid without even realizing it. We may not always be able to be there for those we care about, but God puts us where we can help someone else who needs it.
The revelation hit me so hard I gasped aloud. Hildie hadn’t been there when I was in that accident. But others had been. Help hadn’t come from the places I expected it, but it had come. Suddenly I remembered:
The blind man who had been in the car with me, who took my hand and led me away from the accident.
The employer who left an important client meeting to come to the hospital and stand by my head brace and hold my hand, and later drove me back to my dorm.
The resident assistant who let me back into my room and helped me call the people I wanted to see.
The German girlfriend of my boyfriend’s brother, who stayed and kept me company after my boyfriend stalked out, even though she barely knew me and spoke only a little English.
The friend, who is now my husband, who brought me chicken noodle soup, orange juice, and the gift of his company.
Help had come. It had not come from my mom, or my dad, my boyfriend or the paramedics. No nurse or doctor had filled the call to help where help was needed. But others, less expected but no less significant, had.
I quaked, and I cried, as I shared this message with the rest of the gathered meeting. Grace, though I had not named it that, is knowing that help will come when you need it, even when it’s not what or from whom you expect.
I wrote most of that (except the bit at the beginning about my phone) on December 11, 2009. Then I added a bunch of stuff about how much Grace I was needing in my life right then, which I was, probably more than ever before in my life. I wrote about dark things scurrying in the corners of my mind. About unwanted tenants in my heart that I couldn’t figure out how to evict, and sometimes didn’t know if I wanted to. Then this:
Grace is knowing that help will come. Maybe not now, maybe not even soon, but it will. Grace is the ability to be patient and wait for it. Grace is knowing that your help may already be with you, and you just haven’t seen it yet, the way the blind man was there for me long before I was ready to remember.
Like the blind man, and the German girlfriend, and the noodle soup bringer, Grace comes often in forms we’re not expecting. Grace is the peace that comes to me in my darkest moments and it is Grace that speaks to me out of the silence and tells me everything is OK: Help is already here.
In the year & a half since I wrote that, my help has come, like a wind it has swept through my life and changed me in ways I never thought possible. Ways I didn’t even know I needed to be changed. Like a wind it swished away the dark tenants, filled me with hope, then energy. Then confidence, and joy.
Of course, it didn’t happen that easily, nor all at once. It’s been a time filled with lots of waiting. Lots of bumbling around, lots of shame, darkness, angst, and fear. Lots of tears and walking down dark alleys, sometimes in entirely the wrong direction. Pain. Pain like I’ve never felt before.
But Grace kept bringing me back. She sent me a therapist who helped evict my dark tenants. I learned where my fears began—long before the car accident—and why shame and darkness and anger had always dogged my steps. She taught me life doesn’t have to be that way, and she showed me the way out.
Grace sent me second and third chances.
And long before I understood what a miracle she had wrought, Grace sent me my noodle soup bringer, my love, who has never once left my side through it all. My help indeed was here all along.
May Grace come to you also and soon.