Almost by definition, puppies are going to dry-heave loudly at 4 am until you take them out to pee. That’s where I’ve been these past few mornings, people – in my kitchen, wide awake, at 4 am.
But after a week of all this exhausting puppy stuff (and discovering that puppies are merely furry babies with sharp teeth), there was something different in Monday morning’s 4 a.m. session with Beasley.
Here’s what changed:
I was tidying the kitchen, because I had nothing better to do, and I came across a parking ticket I received a couple of weeks ago.
I had kept it. Because this was no ordinary parking ticket.
This is how I got the ticket:
Liz and I had just gone to dinner with our friends at this place in South Norwalk called Mecha. We walked out, full and delighted and about to give each other happy hugs and I looked over at my car and I see, tucked under my windshield wiper, that little scrap of paper that can ruin your whole night.
You see that ticket and your mind immediately flashes back to how it happened. How had you missed the signs? You go through all the five stages of grief before you can even slide it out from under the wiper blade.
In this case, in South Norwalk that night, I picked it up and saw….this.
Total due: Zero dollars and zero cents.
That, my friends, is grace.
Grace is unexpected. It is a near miss, a bullet of terribleness whizzing past your psyche, so close it makes your hair stand on end.
The difference with grace is that the bullet of terribleness didn’t miss you because of dumb luck. It didn’t miss you because you Matrix’ed your body backwards as the bullet blazed over your head in slow motion.
Grace, in short, is not the same as good fortune. Grace has nothing to do with your ability to talk your way out of something.
Grace arrives only when life has you dead to rights. You made a mistake. You deserve what is coming because you failed in your responsibility in some way. It is your fault and yours alone. The consequences are, alas, unavoidable.
And in that awful moment, somebody makes a conscious choice to save you from it.
In this case, the parking ticket on my car was deserved, but the City of Norwalk decided that with 20 minutes left on an unpaid meter, it was going to pay that penalty for me. And make no mistake, that is revenue that they probably already budgeted for. Which means they are paying for it instead of me.
That’s the startling thing about grace: It’s not about somebody merely letting you off the hook. Grace actually costs somebody something.
Three years ago, I was teaching Sunday school at our church in New Canaan, which happens to be called Grace Community Church.
(The photo up top – that’s Grace Farms, where our church is fortunate to be able to hold our Sunday services. The Grace Farms Foundation building is a stunning architectural marvel. Look it up – seriously.)
Anyway – the Executive Director of the church, Julia, was coordinating the Sunday School programming. I was writing to her at 9 pm on Saturday evening, asking for advice, completely and totally stressed out because I hadn’t prepared. I was dreading the next day.
Julia was texting back, patient and thoughtful and giving me great ideas and advice. I sat on my couch and worked on my laptop, stressed out.
Ten minutes later I got another text from Julia. This text was a picture of the Get Out Of Jail Free card from Monopoly.
Under the card, it read this:
“Don’t even worry about it – I’m going to teach in your place tomorrow. I got this!”
That sounds small to you, right? Well let me tell you something – that was three years ago and I’m still thinking about it. I was just so, so grateful.
The point here is this:
Julia was not writing to say “Don’t worry, we’ll just cancel Sunday school class!” No, this was Julia, with a million other things she was responsible for, telling me that she would take my place on her laptop at 9 pm on a Saturday night. She would do the prep work. She would take my place in the class the next day.
It cost her. Because grace always costs somebody something.
This is Julia and Liz at Grace Farms. (You can see in the far background the same roof as in the top image of this blog. Also, we love Julia.)
The greater the gift, the greater you feel overwhelmed by that grace.
To me, grace is the most wonderful and beautiful thing about my faith. It’s one of the things we try to practice in our home, especially with our kids (with some success and much failure, but we do try). Because we do bad things all the time. Little things, big things. All the time.
That’s not to beat ourselves up, we are simply human and our selfishness gets in the way, again and again. And I can say to myself “But I’m a good person!” which I believe is true but that’s because I’m comparing myself to people who I KNOW are worse than me.
But what if the person judging the Good Person Competition is one of those people who lives in a leper colony and gives all their money to feed street cats or whatever? Not feeling so great about that competition all of a sudden, right?
In the end, I want to be forgiven for things I do wrong, rather than try to shove them down deep into my conscious in an attempt to ignore them. The thing about my faith is that I don’t have to stuff them down there, because when I acknowledge and repent for those things, I’m forgiven by the God I believe in.
Last thing, but it’s a biggie for me: I’m not forgiven because God is giving me a pass or magically wiping it away. I’m forgiven by grace – which means it cost Him something. And when I think about what it cost Him, it changes how I view life.
But back to parking tickets for a second. Here are…
My Top Five Traffic Violations
1. The White Circle
Street signs in Europe are weird, man. They have these red circles with one slash through them and two slashes through them and who knows what they mean but they look imposing. So naturally when I saw one with no slashes, just a white circle, I assumed that meant “Drive here! Everything’s okay!” But it meant the exact opposite, which was how I found myself driving up a pedestrian walkway leading up to a tenth century castle outside Prague, Czechs diving out of the way like Indiana Jones avoiding a rolling boulder.
2. Running a red light.
It was the middle of the night when it was time for me to drive Lizzie to the hospital as we were expecting Lucy. I knew I had to drive carefully. I was also praying that I would encounter a red light, because this was the moment I could finally run a red light. I imagined a cop pulling me over and seeing Liz was expecting and me shouting “My wife is having a baby!” and that cop stammering an apology and then giving us an escort to Stamford hospital. But of course we hit all green lights because I have no luck whatsoever.
3. Turning right on red.
My first car was a 1986 Buick LeSabre and if you drove under ten miles an hour the engine would shut off. It was like being in that movie Speed except really lame. So I was in South Carolina and I made a right on red because otherwise my car would shut off and I got pulled over and I explained it to the cop and he still gave me a ticket. (Also because I had no excuse since I wasn’t driving my expectant wife to the hospital. More bad luck!)
4. One Way.
When I first learned to drive I was living in Jersey City. The first day I got my license I picked up my buddy, who didn’t have his license yet, who hopped in and as I made a left at the next block he said “You can’t go this way!” And I said “Quit yelling which way to go you’re distracting me!” but he meant it was a One Way street and I really, really couldn’t go that way and he was like “We’re gonna die!” but we’re still alive so joke’s on him.
5. No speedometer.
I was maybe 11 when my brother Dave was driving me in his green Camaro to my grandmother’s house. He was speeding, of course, and got pulled over. Dave is wearing a panama jack hat and looks totally sketchy. Cop asks him how fast he was going and he says he doesn’t know because his speedometer was broken. Then the cop realizes we have no seat belts in the car. Then he happens to ask my name, and as it turns out Dave is my half-brother so we have different last names and next thing I know the cop is pulling Dave from the car and making him stand 20 feet away and he comes back and leans back in the window to me and asks me in a low voice if I was being kidnapped. So that happened.
Grace. Love it.