I recently had lunch with a friend I had not seen for about 6 years. Of course, I advised her that since the last time we met, I had received a diagnosis of heart failure and had a new, improved heart device inside me.
My friend is like me, and is more than a little curious. So she wanted to know all the details about my heart failure and how I was feeling. Before I provided the ups and downs of my story, I made her promise that she would not worry about the details of my condition. I think I somehow managed to make my life sound like more ups than downs, more successes than failures. Because truly, that is the life that I now live and I am fortunate to have it.
My friend wanted to read my blog and so I sent her the link to the blog site, as well as instructions on how to navigate it. Her response was that while she was still processing our discussion, the question that occurred to her was "Is this what it means to live in grace?"
After a while, I realized why the concept of living in grace came into her to mind. Because her question helped me ponder and realize some important facts about a topic that I have struggled with ever since I started writing this blog. I have tried to define why my faith is important and what grace means. And it wasn’t until my friend asked this question that it finally dawned on me.
So here are my thoughts on what grace is. Before I begin, it is important to note that I am a member of the Christian faith. So my experience is based on the relationship I have formed with God through that faith.
In the Christian faith, we learn that God sent his son Jesus Christ to live on earth, and to endure the sacrifice of his life so that we humans can be forgiven for our sins. I have been going to a Christian church all my life, and accept this as truth. My faith is so second nature to me that I do not doubt that Christ was horribly killed and then rose three days later to return to God’s kingdom, paving the way for us to follow.
For me, this shows the Grace of God, that he would not only forgive us our sins, but that he would also make it possible for such flawed human beings like me to follow his son into an eternity known as heaven.
Forgiveness is not dependent or how many bible verses we memorized, and grace occurs regardless of how many church services we attended. There is no test, no admission fee, and no interview process that we must undergo before we can gain admittance to heaven. In the Christian faith, it is the acceptance that Christ is our savior. In fact, I think there is proof for the proposition that good deeds do not have to be the motivation for God’s grace, but that God’s grace inevitably results in good deeds.
We only need to look at the story of Saul of Tarsus. It wasn’t just that Saul didn’t go to church. He hated the church – and wanted to destroy it. He persecuted the Christians and was on his way to find them and bind them so they could be imprisoned. But on the road to Damascus he was blinded. After a few days, his sight was restored by a believer named Ananias through the grace of God. Saul of course would become Paul the Apostle (later St. Paul). As was the case with the other apostles, Paul would suffer much and become a martyr, a fact that God revealed to Paul before he began his ministry. But he continued on despite the prophesy because he knew God would be with him, and would provide him strength and hope and courage.
I struggled to explain my belief to friends and others because I can never seem to find the perfect words to illustrate the unconditional grace that we have been granted. It wasn’t until I had lunch with this friend that I had an epiphany. You see, I cannot recall using the word grace in that conversation. In fact, we never spoke in depth about my belief in Christ. I did discuss my plan to start a support group, and that the plan was supported by my church board and that they agreed that the meetings could be held in the space of the church.
I also talked about the fact that my life had fallen out of balance and that it has become clear to me that heart failure was the factor that brought balance back into my life. I told her my longstanding joke that I often say that if God had wanted to get my attention to let me know that I was going off the deep end, he could have just sent me a burning bush – just like Moses! But then I always say "Who am I kidding? I would just have looked for the nearest fire extinguisher!"
After reading my friend’s e-mail response, it dawned on me that maybe I did not need to continue my search to find the right words that explain grace. Maybe the best illustration of the concept of grace is found in the attitude that I displayed during our lunch. Maybe the best proof of God’s empowering gift of grace is my ability to joke about something that when you come right down to it is a very serious condition, one that could result in a death a little earlier than I had initially expected.
I think what has happened is that I looked into the depths of my soul and drew upon my faith, and prayed, and looked to my church for support. During this time, I realized that God loves me so much that he sacrificed his son for me and that gave me the reassurance I need to make it through whatever good and bad things this life has to offer.
I think the epiphany came as I thought back over the years that I have believed without question and without requiring proof that salvation is real and that there is means there is something beyond this life.
And so if there is something beyond this life, why was I stressing so much over what would happen on this earth? Yes, I will eventually die as happens to all of us. The stress over what happens in this life, and what happens with my heart failure was actually the thing that was limiting me. Why? Because in a life where earth sets the boundaries, it means that once I die, I can’t transcend those boundaries. However, my faith now tells me that these are false boundaries and should not discourage me.
When it comes right down to it, maybe my career plans changed, maybe I won’t write the great novel, maybe I won’t be able to run in 8K and 10K races anymore. But the array of things I can do is still wide-ranging and powerful. This includes having the strength to do what God wants even if it wasn't your idea (or probably especially if it wasn't your idea), and knowing that you no longer have to fear earthly consequences because God has graced us with forgiveness that will survive this earth and give us eternal life.
It has taken me almost a full six years to reach this point. The old Melanie would have obsessed over the loss of those years as wasted time. Actually, the old Melanie probably would have taken a lot longer than six years to reach this point, if indeed she ever reached it. I now realize that God’s forgiveness and grace has given me the luxury of time and serenity to perform acts that benefit others.
I recognize that grace provides me with the energy and inspiration that I have to live the remainder of my life without fear and with purpose is grounded in my Christian faith. I write this because it is my experience, but I also recognize the perspectives of others who are not Christians who have overcome the challenges of their illness. They should inspire us as well. I suspect that those who observe different faiths or no faith also have beliefs, traditions or meditations that can get inspire them to navigate and endure the rough patches of chronic illness until a bright spot occurs on the horizon. Because it is these techniques that I believe will make the difference between a life grounded in fear versus a life grounded by harmony with the rest of the world.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.