Long ago and far away
Growing up, I was what many people would consider very fortunate. Now this is not because we were rich or famous or both. In fact, our lives were very normal: a nuclear family, the youngest of five siblings, surrounded by dozens of cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents; all encompassed in a small warm little town in southern Italy. Even as a little boy I could feel that there was something in the air, it was as though time had stood still. No matter where I went, whether alone or with friends, everyone knew who we were. They knew our names, who our parents were and could literally quote the degrees of separation between themselves and someone in our family. Life was simple, predictable, enjoyable. Scandal was unheard of and Grace was secretly abundant.
No respecter of persons
My family wasn’t very religious: we knew God existed, that Jesus was also God, that He was born on Christmas Day, died on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday. We showed reverence where and when it was due but for the most part, life moved on without much consideration for the things of God. Now this didn’t mean that we were blasphemers or that we took the name of God in vain, on the contrary: we were always taught of the Goodness of God and how He loved us but it was never to the point of a personal relationship with Him.
Grace of God as background
Even though God wasn’t the central figure of life, much of life played out within the realm of a healthy fear for God and his Commandments. As a young boy, I didn’t know what domestic violence was. I had never heard the word “divorce”. Even police presence at our house was limited to the captain coming to say hello to my parents. The would come for friendly advice of a personal nature or simply to chat a bit about soccer or politics. This was not just my reality but the reality of everyone I knew. We had what I later learned would be described as a “charmed life”. No one I knew struggled with drugs or alcoholism or sloth or the stain of a bad reputation of any kind.
Grace masquerading as a charmed life
Thinking back, all of my memories of interactions with adults, whether blood relation or not, was a positive one. I don’t have any recollections of adults calling me disparaging names, being belittled, or ever being hit out of anger; never went to school without clean clothes on, without being well-groomed and all my homework done and checked by at least one adult. In fact, some of my most vivid childhood memories include my uncle bringing me to the town square to show off to his friends how quickly I could do mental math. They would all cheer and clap and smile and I would inevitably end up with ice cream paid by whichever gentlemen had posed the math problem.
From this young age, I learned to trust and respect others and had come to expect a solar disposition from people, even strangers. Unbeknownst to me, God’s scandal Grace permeated every angle of my life, so much so that I thought that everyone’s home life was the same as mine. I couldn’t imagine anything else. On top of that, I wasn’t even aware that all of this was because of Grace; I thought everyone lived this way. Concepts such as racism, divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, or premarital pregnancies weren’t even words that I knew as a child. Life was good.
Heaven as it is on Earth
It’s because of this that I can recall that even at a young age I didn’t fear death: I thought that I would simply die and go to Heaven and everything would be exactly how I had left it back on Earth. Peaceful, loving, caring and gracious. Warm long summer days and crisp, clear summer nights. The days were filled with play, cold drinks and moms chasing us down forcing us to eat. The nights were filled with the sounds of neighbors sitting outside talking and laughing until the early hours of the morning while young men driving by on the motorcycles hoping to catch a glimpse of their sweetheart casually serving cold drinks to the gatherings in the streets. I never questioned any of it, I couldn’t imagine anyone living a reality different than mine: I knew life was good, I just thought everyone’s life was good!
How the other half lives
It wasn’t until much later, in high school that I caught my first glimpse of an alternate reality: I learned that people had complicated, often painful and stress-filled lives haunted with want and lack and struggles of every kind. It was then that I started to realize that the life I took for granted and assumed as the status quo for everyone was anything but ordinary, it was in fact very rare and very special. Friends and acquaintances I had made over the years had a myriad of differing life experiences. Some lived with one parent, some lived with grandparents. Still others some lived alone. Some were abused, still others were neglected and rejected. From broken homes to foster homes and every variation in between, I saw just how special a normal life truly was.
I questioned this reality that, apparently, was very special: a gift. I wondered if it was because we were special: was it something about us that made us special. Slowly I realized that people are, for the most part, all the same and the only “moving parts” are things that they cannot control: their birth and their initial circumstances. The old adage came to mind “you can pick your friends but not your family”. But if I can’t pick my family, Someone must have! The only reason why I wasn’t born into lack and want and abuse was by sheer Grace! Again and again Grace proved itself to be scandalous. I could’ve just as easily been born in another time and place where my reality could have been a hell on Earth scenario rather than the one I had which I could only refer to as “Heaven’s Waiting Room”.
The randomness of Grace
In my mind I accepted this Truth, thankfully so, and moved on with life. I accepted, in my own teenage way, that, by God’s Sovereign Will, my life was good and it could’ve just as easily not been so. This understanding did give me more empathy for my fellow man, but nothing that moved me to tears or to action, it simply gave me a sense of pity for them: I understood that their decisions were the result of complicated factors and that they didn’t know any better. This gave me a false and unwarranted sense of superiority: I pitied them like you would a child throwing a tantrum in a mall or someone arguing and cursing in full view of their young children. I knew it was random “luck”, God’s Sovereignty, and nothing that I did on my own, and yet, I did not learn the right lesson and it had catastrophic effects on my self-image.
Humanism interpreting Grace
I reasoned that all of this was partially possible because of factors that were unique to us: how our heritage and geography met with history: Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines all called our little corner of the world “home”. Pythagoras derived his formulas literally a few miles from our town; Crassus defeated Spartacus in the fluvial flood plains in the valley below my town: this sense of pride and history, I realized, permeated every single aspect of our lives. Everything was very structured. Hierarchical, and clan-like. Our sense of who we are came, also, from a knowledge of who we had been. In fact, everyone there could be described as an “old soul”. Children were wise beyond their years. Our elders had millenary memories of old feuds and sad stories of dead kings. It made us very wise but, in a way, very arrogant.
This is a scandal but it is not Grace
I was not immune to any of this by any stretch of the imagination: I suddenly “knew” who I was: we were civilization. Where I come from we have a saying: “La Storia siamo Noi!” which translates loosely to: “we are history!”. With very little evidence to the contrary, from what I could see, this sense of pride rose in me and became arrogance. But, through it all, His eyes were still on me. It was then, that He started sending His servants my way: humble men and women with a true reverence and love for God to point me in the right direction. I paid them little mind: I was sure of myself, self-assured that they were wrong and that I had no need for their philosophy.
Here comes the boom
But during a winter night after yet another move across the Atlantic to the United State that it happened. I found myself alone, separated from what made me feel safe, again forced to make new friends and rebuild an identity and find a way to fit in, that it finally happened to me. After struggling for weeks and months telling myself that it’ll be alright, that I finally broke, and asked for help.
I was sleeping on yet another foldable cot pushed up against a couch so as to make it a bit bigger. In yet another small and cramped apartment. That’s when it finally happened. Having lost connections to what I thought was important, to what gave me purpose and meaning and direction, it finally happened. Looking for sleep that wouldn’t come and wrestling with thoughts that wouldn’t leave. I cried out in my mind to this far away God. I had learned of Him as a boy, heard about from these zealots and discounted as an unnecessary complication.
Who are You, Lord?
I pleaded to this God that I didn’t even know was real to prove Himself to me. I dared and begged and pleaded with Him to give me rest in mind and body. Struggling with myself, I asked Him to keep me in my bed and to keep my mind from doing what it wanted to do to my body. I cried out from my soul without making a sound. It was as if someone that had taken my next breath after a bullet impact to the chest. I pleaded with God. “Jesus, give me rest!”. If He would only take me out of this misery, keep me from committing the unthinkable, and restore me to my former self, I promised that I would serve Him for the rest of my life! Enter the scandal of His Grace.
I am Jesus.
In an instant, a deep and restful sleep washed over me. Like a warm wave over dry feet on a Mediterranean beach. It was the most restful sleep I had ever experienced. And since. The next morning I woke up refreshed. With a smile on my face I went about life as if nothing had ever happened. I could recall the thoughts and the pain but none of it bothered me; I was suddenly floating above it all. My mind was restored. My demeanor returned to the self I recognized and all the pain was gone.
The Author of scandalous Grace
The God I had only heard of in passing and had learned stories, almost like fairy tales, had suddenly become not just real but very personal. This same God that had provided for me and sheltered me from evils. He had bestowed on me abundant levels of unmerited favor. Not just my material needs. He had now done the unimaginable: He saved my life and, in doing so, saved my soul!
That no one should boast
Despite all the benefits of a stable home-life and caring friends. In spite loving neighbors and teachers. Despite being sheltered and kept from every evil. I realized that day that I would still have ended up in Hell. Had it not been for my encounter with Jesus. It fell on me like a blanket from Above. Hell is not a place filled with depraved and unrepentant sinners like we see in the movies. It’s a place where “good people” end up every day. This life I was living was a scandal. The Grace I had been granted was scandalous.
It was that day that I started my long and winding walk with the Lord. Along the way, through peaks and valleys and everything in between. I understood that what Jesus has done for me, personally, is truly scandalous!
This moment. This episode, this stumbling block in my life, was nothing less than His scandal of Grace in my life. He looked for me continuously until I noticed Him waiting for me. This season did not happen to me but for me. Preordained since time immemorial. It was meant to cause me to stumble to the point where, like in the darkest night, the deepest foxhole, all that is left is your soul and God. In yet another show of His love for me, my life and my soul, Jesus reached out from Heaven and entered my life, my story, my history: He made me part of His story.
The Bible teaches “what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”. I am thankful beyond words. In my bankrupt condition, God saw it fit to send His Son to die on the cross in my place. He provided the only currency capable of paying for the release of my soul. While on my way to Hell I was offered Heaven. That is the Scandal of Grace is that. Just as the songwriter says: “He didn’t have to do it, but He did”. When I didn’t want to know Him, He came looking for me; when I didn’t think I needed Him, He was patient with me; and when in my foolish hubris I would say “there is no God” He was gracious with me.
Scandal of Grace
I write to you now as the heir to fields I did not plant. Of homes I did not build, and storehouses I did not fill. My Heavenly Father owns it all. My Redeemer ransomed it all, and now, by the Scandal of Grace, I will enjoy it all. Thank you, Jesus. Amen!