Vanishing graces are those little acts of kindness or attention that bring grace into someone’s life—to the people we know, but also to the stranger we meet, whether it is the person behind the counter and/or the elderly man walking in front of us as we hurry through a crowd.
I remember clearly one Christmas in the United States. I was pushing my cart through Target bent on finding stocking-stuffer candies. We lived in Chad in a remote town on the edge of the Sahara, and candies such as one finds in Target were precious indeed. I wanted our children to find them in their stockings.
I can see the aisle. I can see a woman standing in front of the exact candies I wanted. I can see myself pushing my cart up to her and reaching in front of her to pull a bag off the shelf. I can see her startled expression. To my shame, I can hear her words still, “Could you be more polite?” I remember being startled and embarrassed, but I was still in a hurry. Mumbling a few words, I hurried on, as much from embarrassment as from time limitation. Sorry I had been rude, yes, but also surprised. I wondered about her. Was she having a bad day? Was she an exacting person who did not mind saying what she thought to anyone who came along? I did not think I was being rude. Well, no more than all the other Christmas shoppers hurrying to find what they wanted in the aisles in a limited space of time.
Maybe that is it—I did not think. Nor did I see beyond myself.
In my hurry, I thought only of what I wanted. In pursuit of a goal, I had forgotten a grace, one that seems to be vanishing in our increasing pursuit of efficiency and control of time. I mean the vanishing grace of paying attention to people—really paying attention, showing respect, and giving value—even to a stranger in an aisle at Target.
I have been made aware of this in another way through a book I have recently read. The authors, John Ortberg and Dallas Willard, write about what it means to live the reality of Christ and His kingdom. The book includes conversations between the authors, one of which has Willard telling Ortberg rather bluntly what he needs to do to alleviate stress in his busy life.
“Relentlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” Willard tells Ortberg. He follows with these words which have begun to weave their way into the fabric of my own life:
“Hurry is the great enemy of the spiritual life in our day. There is a difference between being busy and being hurried. Busy is a condition of the body having many things to do. Hurry is a condition of the soul in which I am so preoccupied that I cannot be fully present to God or a person. Jesus was often busy but he was never hurried.”
Hurry, I think, is at the root of many of our vanishing graces. Hurry keeps us from paying attention to those around us. It keeps us so inwardly preoccupied that we forget to give the grace of a smile or a greeting or an apology when we are in someone’s way. Hurry keeps us from taking the time to write a thank-you note or give that word of encouragement we feel someone could use.
I like this Ortberg quote because it gives me hope. For one thing, it validates a busy life, and I cannot deny that I am busy. There are things I need to do. There are people to meet and deadlines to keep. There are responsibilities to fill. I can be busy—but not so hurried that I fail to see, respect, validate, and connect with the people around me.
Another picture comes to mind. This one happened, I feel sure, because of the influence of the other. I am in a mall in Singapore where we now live. On my mind is a particular pair of shoes I want to buy, and I am looking carefully at store fronts to distinguish a shoe store from a stationery shop. Then I see an elderly man. He seems to be kneeling or something. It is hard to tell at first. He keeps moving down and up and down and up. I see the people around him; some walk by and others pass, then look back, wondering. I hesitate at first; because Singaporeans are generally polite, the inaction of those around may be a validation of what he is doing. Maybe there is a cultural cue here that I am missing. On the other hand, this is a mall, there are crowds, and people are busy and hurried. So I move closer and see that his cane has fallen and he is trying to pick it up but instead seems to be slowly sliding to the floor. I take his arms, pull him up, and hand him the cane. He does not thank me or acknowledge my question to see if he is okay—but he stands and straightens himself, and I move on.
Puzzled by the inaction of those around me, I wonder if I did the right thing. Did I miss something? Did he want to sit down and I had helped him up instead? I do not think so. I think perhaps he just needed someone to pay attention. Someone to stop and reach out and lift him up again to standing.
There are a multitude of ways we can lift others up if we slow down enough. What comes to mind in the space you occupy? Where can slowing down help you be a giver of grace? I have begun a list of graces that require slowing down:
- Handwritten notes (not just emails or texts)
- Being aware of people in my path of movement
- Holding a door for someone behind me
- Letting someone go ahead of me
- Eye contact and a smile for the elderly being pushed in a wheelchair
- A word of thanks to the person who serves me
Vanishing graces: busy but not hurried, paying attention, respecting and loving the people in this space God has given me to live.
Oh, Lord, let it be so.
Questions to consider: There are a multitude of ways we can lift others up if we slow down enough. What comes to mind in the space you occupy? Where can slowing down help you be a giver of grace?
Originally published here on May 8th, 2015. Adapted for Thrive.