Stumbling along, longing for grace. I don’t think we do better than that… in any part of life.
Last week we spent Sunday morning with the people who call themselves Grace Vancouver, and I found myself reflecting on its name, and why it matters to us— a cosmic line-in-the-sand the very idea of grace is.
Pastored by friends, Mike Hsu and Mark Swanson, these folk work hard at being a church for the city, especially their neighborhood, for years making sure that the neighbors are their neighbors. Not surprisingly for the city of Vancouver, BC, the congregation is about half Asian, and half “other,” with their building located in the middle of the city near the Kitsilano Beach.
As we worshiped we sang a song, a song that was first of all for me.
“Come, ye weary, heavy laden, bruised and broken by the fall;
if you tarry til you’re better, you will never come at all…”
A hymn from the 1700s written by Joseph Hart, who for years lived as a hedonist— choosing to live as he wanted because he wanted —slowly, slowly he began to see God, himself and the world more truthfully, the eyes of his heart seeing the reality of his life and all of life. And he began to write about what he saw; amazingly, his songs are still being sung all over the world, even in the middle of a city unimagined in the 18th-century, the very 21st-century Vancouver, a cosmopolitan gateway to the Pacific Rim.
One day, along the days of their life, Robin Williams walked in, and sat among the people of Grace Vancouver. No one made a big deal, which is of course what he hoped. And then again, some time later, still filming in Vancouver, he came back, seeing and hearing grace.
I thought of him as we sang together, wondering about his heart and mind in those last years of his life, bruised and broken as he was, weary, heavy laden as we are— because of course the song is Everyman’s, Everywoman’s; at least the longer I live, the more clear that is to me. In our very bones we know it is true.
Years ago I was asked to teach a class “on something you’ve been thinking about for a while,” and so chose the story we call “the prodigal son.” I had been reading, and rereading this tender parable of a father and his sons, “lost” in their different ways, one off to a distant land, the other staying home. My long reading had persuaded me that this was my story, because at my best I’m a man “stumbling along, longing for grace”— and, truth be told, I will never do better than that. As a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a neighbor, as a colleague, as a citizen, and yes, at the heart of everything, as a human being living my life before the face of God.
Stumble isn’t a tragic word, but simply the truth about me. It is to falter along the way, sometimes painfully, sometimes terribly, but believing with all of my heart that grace is honest and real and possible. True then, it is still true of me, many years later.
The class went on for several months, and we read the story week by week; but we also read Thielicke and Nouwen as they reflected on the parable. And we read Victor Hugo too, his novel-length version of this perennial story which we know as Les Miserables, with its father (the bishop), and sons (Jean Valjean and Javert), and then Susan Howatch as well, Glittering Images, the first of her stories of 20th-century Anglican spirituality. I wanted my students, people like me, to see the story in life, and to take to heart the reality that we are all “stumbling along, longing for grace.”
Making peace with that matters. Not because its truth brings despair, but because we are aware of the ways that we too are weary, we too are heavy laden, we too are bruised and broken by the fall. If we fail to own that truth, waiting until we’re better, we will never find grace at all— and that would be tragic, because it would be the saddest story of all.