Sunday, January 11, 2009

There But for the Grace of Luck

All she could say after her near-death accident was: How lucky I am. How lucky I was.

Here’s the scene: My friend is driving along a well traveled innocent main road in Vermont on her way to pick someone up at the Burlington airport. She is feeling happy. She loves this friend and looks forward to a brief visit. It’s early January. It’s winter in VT. Things freeze up fast in winter storms’ aftermath. Night driving can be dangerous. But it’s 10 a.m. Today is bright, sunny. The patch of black ice is smooth, looks just like the open road, captures the well treaded tires of my friend’s Volvo and takes her where she neither plans nor wants to go—skidding wildly, out of control, 40 mph, off the road, crashing through a fence in front of a house, hurtling forward, helpless, saying “No. No. No” over and over. The ending: a head-on life-saving collision with a big old tree, possibly apple, in which the Volvo ends up the loser. My friend escapes; air bags deploy. Trembling, she puts her hand on her chest that has taken such a wallop. My friend’s body has bruises but is intact. The car door opens without balking and she slowly lowers one leg and then the other to the ground. It is solid, frozen—no ice.

The second ending: Whispering about luck, my friend looks around. Where is she? She steps aside. There— mere feet beyond the old apple—a ravine gapes at her.
“How lucky I am. Oh, how lucky I am. God, how lucky I am.”

I feel lucky too that my friend is alive. And I ponder. Was this luck or grace in the Christian sense of divine gift? Is there a difference and if so what is it? As a priest I feel compelled if not obliged to reflect on the spiritual meanings of things. I think it is spiritually care-less not to reflect on quick, easy use of mystical language.

My friend is a faithful and reliable Christian, but she didn’t use that worn out theological cliché, “There but for the grace of Godde go I.”

That phrase pops up quickly for many religious folks, almost like an air bag deployed to protect, to deflect the awful impact of tragedy and the awful question, WHY. I understand the impulse, but the phrase implies a deity who arbitrarily sprinkles grace around like confetti, to say nothing of what it implies about the one who may end up dead in some ravine or other.

One final query: Can there be bad grace? Nope. Bad things aren't generated by Divine goodness. Simply so. So if you hear Godde's inner voice whispering to you that you're a loser or a schmuck, it's not from Godde. Delete it. What about bad luck? Yes, but for luck to be bad you have to label it "bad." "I'm lucky" is a positive statement.

So I’m glad my friend praised her luck. I’m content to leave the difference between luck and grace a mystery. Amazing luck is as godly to me as amazing grace.

My friend is alive—for no reason.


Jeanne said...


A very fine story. I wonder how many times in the course of life these things happen? We usually don't keep track.


Ardis said...

When we label luck as ‘bad’ or 'good’ we are making a judgment from a limited position. It’s ‘bad’ to hit a tree but ‘good’ not to go over a cliff are from a perspective of cherishing life on this planet. How might 'good and bad' change if we were to be totally delivered from fear of death?

Lyn G. Brakeman said...

Good and bad I suppose are as intermingled as luck and grace. Hard to distinguish the one from the other in their mysterious co-existence in one event as you say. Hence, I have to say that death and life co-mingle in like fashion. What if we were totally delivered from the fear of life? No answers but fun to toss things around. Thank you Ardis.

wenvirly said...

Even if such rescues are not God's 'grace', they are still an opportunity to thank God, the giver of life, for life itself. So often we take life for granted. When it is nearly snatched away, we remember what a precious gift it is, and for a while try to live every day as though it were our last, and thank God for that privilege. If we never slipped back into the take-it-for-granted mode, we'd always be ready for the day we end up in the ravine. But I don't think there's anything that can prepare us for the day the ravine swallows up a person we love. On that day it's pretty hard to give thanks.