The American Dream and the Offensiveness of Grace

One of the greatest myths in our society is that if you work hard enough, you can be/have/do whatever you want. Of course most of us have realized, somewhere along the way, that while there is great value in earning what one wants, sometimes no matter how hard we work, things still don’t go our way. A level playing field seldom, if ever, exists. Some people are born into comfortable and safe circumstances, while some are born into poverty and violence, and have to strive much harder only to arrive behind those not facing such challenges.

Still, this myth persists in our politics, our pop culture, and sometimes even in our churches. It’s like we’ve forgotten what people across the ages have known: Life is not fair.

Or is it?

vines-wine-grapes-vineyard-fruit

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a story about what the Kingdom of God is like. The parable of the eleventh hour describes a vineyard owner who hires a worker who is waiting for work in the market square early in the morning, who agrees to be paid a denarius (a day’s wages) for the day’s work. Then the vineyard owner hires more workers mid-morning, more in the early afternoon, and then even hires some who are still waiting in the late afternoon (the eleventh hour).  Then at the end of the day, they are all given the same pay of one denarius.  The guy who started working early in the morning is pretty pissed, thinking that he deserves more then the eleventh hour guys who only worked an hour.  But the vineyard owner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

I’m no theologian; I don’t speak Greek, Hebrew, or anything aside from English and my own mangled version of Spanish. But as far as I can tell, this parable is about the grace of God. It’s about what God in his mercy chooses to give, regardless of what we do to try to earn God’s favor.

It offends our sense of fairness that the worker who worked the longest should not get the greatest reward. But that is the offensive thing about grace – it’s free. We’re not deserving of it and we can’t earn it.

I’m reminded of when I gave birth to my daughter and brought her home for the first time. My son was just two, and he didn’t really like her. When my dad held the baby for the first time, my son burst into tears. And I get it. It offended his little sense of justice, and that was mainly because he felt that he had ownership of Poppop’s attention and love, and was entitled to it – all of it.

rafi and lil

Just like the worker who started early in the morning felt entitled to a greater portion of his employer’s money. Just like we think we are entitled to God’s blessings, that we are more deserving of them because we have them.

If my son had been older, more mature, he would have understood the importance of his sister’s needs being met. He would have understood that there is no limit to the love of a parent (or grandparent) for their children, that there’s plenty to go around, that through his sweetest moments, and his most trying moments, he is still utterly loved, just because he is our child. And so is she. And his most natural response would be to give that love back.

That is the best way I am able to understand God’s mercy.  We are so often like the older sibling or the early morning worker saying, “That’s not fair! These blessings are mine! I earned them! The new baby is not worthy! The eleventh hour workers are not worthy!”

We are right to value justice, but we are wrong to believe that God is unjust for offering life and grace or blessings to those who we do not deem worthy.  Mercy triumphs over judgment and we all deserve judgment.  But God offers us a denarius, a living wage, a purpose, life, which we cannot earn on our own, waiting in the market square.

And if others receive this grace, if others receive blessings, the correct response is not to view it as unfairness but to rejoice in the generosity of the vineyard owner, and to pass on the mercy so freely given.

As recipients of grace we should be eager to show grace to others, whether it be through understanding, compassion, forgiveness or generosity in sharing our blessings (sometimes in the form of actual concrete blessings like food, shelter, medical care, etc.).

Let’s not let our assumptions about earning the good things in life get in the way of us remembering that grace (both the gift of God for eternal life and many of the good things in this life) is unearned and offered by a vineyard owner who is vastly more loving and generous than we have imagined.

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35

Today I turn 35.

i know, it's shocking
I know – I can’t believe it either.

It’s a big one, a bittersweet one – a gift.

For me, it feels like a milestone in the progression from “young adulthood” to “mid-life.”  The exhausting, precious phase of bearing children and nursing babies is drawing to a close for me, and with it, the chaos of that intense care that takes every ounce of time, attention and energy. It is a phase of life that is somehow both life-changing and monotonous, filled with days that are brimming with both utter drudgery and vital importance. But as my children gain independence, and I gain time, I finally know that it will be time well-spent.

I spent much of my life drifting, sometimes along the path of least resistance, scattered and trying a little of everything, and sometimes getting stuck.  I have now been fortunate to stumble upon callings that I love and where I thrive – as a wife and mother foremost, but also a leader, teacher, advocate, writer, researcher and friend.  I have discovered interests and passions that I believe will be life-long – faith, health, family, cultures and the movement between them.

The gift of 35 is finally knowing what I value and what I want, and having the courage and self-confidence to pursue those things.  It is being anchored and empowered to decide when and where to move.

Of course, there will always be the things I can’t control, and that includes aging.  I have started to accept that I will probably never again run a 7 minute mile, lose the extra weight in my waist-line, or get away with wearing clothes from the juniors section.  My hair is not going to stop fading and my skin is not going to un-crease itself.

The loss of physical beauty is hard, even while I still consider myself to be a beautiful woman (most of the time), and even while I don’t value it all that much (theoretically).  But it’s hard to see the shape of my body unwind little by little, like a play-doh figure with finger prints in strange places.  It’s hard to notice a slight loss of flexibility, or a pain in some place where I never noticed one before, like a little, nettling reminder that the progression toward adulthood is complete, and now comes the inevitable descent.

But when I look at my body that has (3 times!) stretched and carried life, then pulled back, looking, each time, more like a grown woman, a mother – I love that body and what it has done.  I love that it can run and jump and still do a handstand and a cartwheel (I think) and lift a child and hug a friend and shake a hand and eat and drink and breathe.

And I think this is another gift of being 35 – the ability to take things in stride; to be grateful for what we have and let go of the things that are less important. It is ceasing to hold anything too tightly, except for our faith.  And while I have a habit, even now, of looking forward often, perhaps always looking ahead, I am more able to enjoy and experience the gifts of this moment that I can treasure as a memory and enjoy while they last.

So all in all, I think I’m going to love 35.

Delawareans: Oppose HB 160 legalizing Physician Assisted Suicide

I sent this to my legislators. Feel free to share:

I strongly oppose the passage of HB 160, the “Death with Dignity” act, which allows terminally ill patients to request physician assistance in ending their lives.

I work for an agency which is heavily focused on suicide prevention and life promotion, particularly among those with mental health disorders.  I feel that supporting this legislation would be counter to my personal values and the mission of my work, and would send a harmful message to those who are already struggling with mental illness and may be contemplating suicide.

In working on suicide prevention, we want everyone to understand that their life has value.  We say that we are being compassionate by extending the right to die to those suffering from terminal illness, but isn’t everyone who is thinking about suicide experiencing great pain and suffering? Isn’t everyone who is considering ending their life moving towards their inevitable demise anyway, as we all are? Isn’t saying that people who are dying faster or sooner have more of a right to kill themselves, implying that their lives are not as much worth living as those who are young and healthy, in other words that they are not as valuable? Isn’t it sending the message that if we are suffering (as most anyone with thoughts of suicide is), life is not worth living?

A 2015 study was published by British scholars David Jones and David Paton demonstrating that states where assisted suicide is legal have seen a rise in overall suicide rates — assisted and unassisted — in those states. The study show that, after controlling for demographic and socioeconomic factors and other state-specific issues, physician-assisted suicide is associated with a 6.3 percent increase in total suicide rates. For individuals older than 65, the effect was even greater, at 14.5 percent.

The legislation uses the term “die with dignity” over and over again. This phrase represents a true shift in values, suggesting that allowing others to care for you at the end of your life is less dignified than taking your own life, which places undue pressure on those who cannot care for themselves to choose death. Many disabilities advocate groups oppose physician assisted suicide because persons living with disabilities or chronic disease are already all too familiar with the implicit and explicit pressures that they face every day.

Most of us hate to see people in pain, and so it is completely understandable why this legislation may be popular. But being compassionate does not mean that we have to sanction suicide. It means caring for people enough to consider their lives precious regardless of illness, age, life expectancy, class, creed or culture.

It is a myth to assume that ending your life early affects only the individual. None of us live in a vacuum. Every action that we make influences others around us, at the very minimum by sending an implicit message. What message are we sending about the value of life for the aged and/or sick when we give them special permission to die?

In all 50 states it is legal for anyone dying in discomfort to receive palliative sedation, wherein the patient is sedated to the point at which the discomfort is relieved while the dying process takes place peacefully. It is also legal to refuse medical care to extend life in many cases. This means that there are legal solutions that already exist and do not raise the very serious risks that this legislation would raise.

Thousands of people make the choice to die by suicide every year. We already have the power to take our own lives if we truly want to. While this type of legislation claims to give more power to the individual, it actually creates a mechanism for the government and medical establishment to enter into decisions as to who lives and who dies, and this is dangerous.

Assisted suicide is the cheapest treatment for a terminal illness. This means that in places where assisted suicide is legal, patients can be steered towards that option simply by being denied the more expensive life-extending treatment that they may desire. There are already multiple examples of insurance companies offering people assisted suicide in lieu of chemotherapy, right here in the United States.

Additionally, while safeguards have been written into the bill to protect those with psychiatric illness (where suicidal thoughts are often a symptom of the illness), these do not actually offer protection, as can be demonstrated by multiple cases. Those who have a history of depression and suicide attempts have already received lethal drugs in the US (for example, Michael Freeland).

In places where physician assisted suicide has been adopted for some time, such as the Netherlands, increasingly permissive laws have cropped up. Currently, patients in the Netherlands may receive physician assisted suicide as children, for psychological distress without physical illness, and for chronic but not terminal illnesses. Dr. Herbert Hendin, who conducted research there, writes in the Psychiatric Times that there have been thousands of cases of involuntary euthanasia (called “termination of the patient without explicit request”).

Thoughts of suicide are sometimes a part of dying, but can be overcome. Like healthy people who become depressed, terminally ill individuals can recover emotionally with the support of antidepressant medications, a good psychologist, a caring spiritual counselor and/or the care of their loved ones. They often find meaning, even in the face of dying, using their final days to reconcile old hurts, tell others how much they mean to them, pass on wisdom that they have acquired in their lives, and appreciate the kindness and compassion of those who care for them.

As a person whose life’s work involves supporting those in psychological distress in the journey toward recovery and psychological wellness, I must oppose legislation that may pressure them towards a decision of despair.