The Paradox of Grace Via Presspots and Paper Plates from the Grave
A paradox: something that is the opposite of what you’d expect to be true, even though it’s quite true, and maybe all the more true because of the contradiction held in the tension of competing truths.
In fact, if you look up its etymology, you discover that a paradox is ‘incredible,’ that is, unable to be believed.
‘Paradox’ comes from the Greek words ‘para,’ meaning ‘contrary to,’ and ‘doxa,’ meaning ‘opinion.’
You have to be cruel to be kind, you won’t ever reach where you’re going if you try to get there by halving each remaining stretch, silence is deafening…all are examples of paradox.
Grace, too, is paradoxical.
You receive exactly what you don’t deserve and that’s precisely why you receive it.
My late father-in-law and late husband, these two men whom, paradoxically I loved and who made me crazy precisely for the same reasons I loved them, taught me the paradoxical truth about grace.
Father-in-law Don and I, we saw the world very differently.
Generally on our best behavior around each other, extended visits together took effort for me, and when staying at his place, I depended on routine self-care naps curled up in my husband’s childhood bedroom.
And although Don would have been diplomatic about admitting it, if pressed he’d have acknowledged that perhaps an extra round of 9 holes when I was around was a welcome thing.
Don was a staunch Republican. I am a staunch Democrat—a Democratic Socialist to be specific, though I didn’t know that at the time. I suspect he did, which made matters worse.
He was fastidious, I am…free-spirited.
He came from strict German stock, I from the Happy Danes.
But the biggest barely-kept-at-bay clash between us was this:
Don brewed his coffee every Sunday, in copious amounts in a restaurant-sized Bunn Coffee Maker, then poured it into thermoses, which stood like waiters on the counter at the ready to serve us our coffee.
Just so that I make this abundantly clear, so that you understand the situation, so that you grasp the extent of the ick-factor of it all: I had to drink Sunday’s weak coffee re-warmed all. week. long.
Coffee, you see, coffee is less to me a vehicle for caffeine, and more an invitation to settle in for a moment, to breathe in a gentle aroma, to appreciate warmth, to welcome the incoming day, to appreciate momentary serenity.
It is therefore a beverage worthy of honor.
But what he poured into my cup, even on the first day, let alone the fifth day, was not coffee.
It was a liquid abomination to all things good.
But I was in his house.
And I already had a knack of annoying him because, well…reference above.
And yet I had no intention of offending Don—not least of all because he fathered my husband, after all.
So instead, I did two things.
1) I drank his “coffee,” albeit with heaps of cream and sugar, which was horrible, because I like my coffee so black that not only can I not see the bottom of the cup, but I’m left to wonder whether I’m cradling a black hole in my hands.
2) Every night, I’d set my alarm for 4:30 in the morning.
When it rang, I’d grab a bulky bag from my suitcase.
I’d tip-toe down the hallway, I’d hope to God I’d remember to turn off the house alarm on the keypad before I hung a left to make my way to the kitchen, I’d silently place my sacred satchel on the counter, I’d open it up, and I’d pull out, with a smile and a sigh of relief and a “Thank You Jesus,” a package of Starbucks French Roast Ground Coffee, along with a press pot.
Some mornings I’d even hug the bag in the dark of the early morning kitchen.
Ever so quietly I’d pull out a pan that I’d secretly set aside the night before, I’d pour the right amount of water in it, let it simmer to the perfect temperature while I placed the perfect amount of grounds in my press pot, I’d pour the water onto my coffee, then stir the grounds, then place the water pot quietly back into the cupboard, and, then, with my bag, my favorite coffee cup that I’d packed along, and my press pot, I’d tiptoe right on back to our bedroom, remembering to rearm the alarm, and I’d crawl back into bed with my coffee, the solitary opportunity for good coffee I’d get that day, and I’d savor every sip.
With this cup downed, I was confident that I could meet the rest of the day, and the rest of last Sunday’s coffee, with pleasantness and even a smile.
To boot, I was confident that I wouldn’t sabotage my already somewhat tenuous relationship with my father-in-law by insulting his well-earned and even noble Depression-Era born pragmatism when I reflexively spat out his weak, week-old, god-awful brew.
For two years, it worked.
Then came Christmas Eve, 1998.
We were gathered around our Christmas tree, in our cozies, and opening our presents—it counted that we could agree that Christmas presents are to be opened up on Christmas Eve, and Santa presents on Christmas morning.
So it came time to open the gift from Don to me.
I could tell something was up.
I warily opened the present—meticulously wrapped, of course.
And there, in my hands, was this:
A Bodum portable Coffee Making Set: an electric tea kettle, a tiny press pot, a storage container for coffee grounds, two small cups, and even a tiny spoon to “break the crust” of the grounds after the water is poured in.
Don was chortling.
I was speechless.
”How,” I sputtered, “how did you know?”
”I shall never say,” he said with his booming voice and a grin. “I will say this: you can just leave the alarm off tomorrow morning, and every morning after that too.”
I still use the coffee maker he gifted me, regularly bringing it with me on almost all of my travels. Alas, I’ve lost the yellow spoon, but it has made more space for my wine opener.
And every time, I think of the lesson in hospitality I receive, steaming up from a cup of wonderful, piping hot, dark roast, strong, freshly brewed coffee, delivered by Don Coning, brewer of the worst coffee in the world, and exactly therefore and thereby a gifter of tremendous grace.
Just days before the accident, my late husband and I had a significant argument.
Like, the kind where it ended with a suffocating, silent fume that endured for at least a day.
And over what?
Of course, it wasn’t really about paper plates.
The issue was this: later that week, I had the final obligation of my tenure at the Universität Regensburg, when our department hosted the Birthday Fest for my Doktor Vater Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. Hans Schwarz.
It wasn’t any ordinary birthday celebration, the sorts of which we North Americans might expect for an respected friend or colleague.
It was a German birthday celebration, offered in honor and gratitude for an esteemed, prolific, and nearing-retirement professor.
And it was so significant that it was the very reason we’d stayed for another year after my dissertation was done: I got to plan a party.
Of course, that entailed compiling essays written by Prof. Schwarz’s former students from all over the globe, and corresponding with invited speakers, and coordinating festivity venues, and so forth.
So the week of our tiff, I was busy.
Really busy, because it was the Week Of The Party.
Unbeknownst to us, of course, it would also be the weekend of Bill’s death.
Meanwhile, Bill was a stay-at-home dad, tending to Karl, then almost three, and Else, only 8 months old.
We were also in the throes of packing for our return back to the States. Shipping had gotten complicated, post 9-11, so we had regulations to learn, items to sort, and suitcase-stuffing to do.
We’d been there for five years, and accumulated not just precious things but two precious babies, so it wasn’t an easy task.
So this week, I was always gone.
Karl was always trying to ‘help.’
Else had determined that it was a social justice issue that her milk was coming from a bottle and not her mama, so she was always unhappy.
End effect: my time and patience was short, and Bill’s time and patience was short, and the kids were just short, and needy, and picking up on the stress.
So with the best of intentions, I suggested that we make our lives easier, and buy some paper plates and chuckable forks, knives, and spoons, just for this last week—after that, we were anyway planning on finally touring Europe, which, oddly, we hadn’t done like we’d hoped: between my dissertation work, two children, my parents having moved to Slovakia for two years, and our love of the Alps, we simply hadn’t seen much beyond Bavaria.
“Absolutely not,” he angrily said.
”Why NOT?” I replied, immediately ticked by his reaction.
”We are called to be stewards all the time, not just when it’s convenient.”
”Sooo….” I said, “you’re pulling stewardship out when we are stressed out of our gourds. I kind of think Jesus would understand a week full of paper plates, babe, under the circumstances.”
“We are not getting paper plates and plastic silverware. We can handle the dishes. The Earth can’t handle more paper plates and plastic silverware.”
At which point I glared at my righteous husband, who in this moment seemed to me more self-righteous than righteous, and left him to do the dishes righteously by himself.
So, super petty, right? As are so many marital arguments.
A week later, I was back in the apartment.
It was four days after the accident.
I’d stopped at the apartment only once before, just briefly the day after the accident, just to pick up clothes for E and me, as she and I basically moved into the ICU to be with Karl.
My parents had flown straight away from the States after the news, and were staying at our apartment: we lived on the top floor of a tower that dated from 1215, along a cobblestoned alleyway in the center of ancient Regensburg, just a handful of blocks away from the northern most point of the Danube.
It was so, so beautiful.
Right across from our spot was a tapas restaurant.
I’d just come home from the ICU to shower, and to pick up a change of clothes for Elsegirl and me, and most horrible of all, to pick out the outfit in which Bill would be dressed for his memorial service.
My father loved the tapas food from this place, and he loved bantering with the owner, and so had popped over to get some small bites for us to eat while I was ever-so-briefly home.
As he was pulling out the delicious array from the bag, he called out this fateful sentence:
“Where are your paper plates?”
I burst out into tears and fury.
“DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT !@$#$&%#! PAPER PLATES! WE DON’T HAVE PAPER PLATES AND LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE MOMENT IT’S ALL BILL’S FAULT.”
Unified parental silence.
”…Baby?” said my mama. “Baby, yes you do.”
”NO WE DO NOT. I WANTED PAPER PLATES LAST WEEK AND BILL PULLED JESUS ON ME AND SO NOW WE DON’T HAVE PAPER PLATES EXACTLY WHEN I NEED NOTHING MORE THAN SOME DAMN PAPER PLATES! AND COME TO THINK OF IT JESUS WOULD BE HELPFUL NOW TOO,” I hollered and wept and raged.
I saw my mother look at my father, and then walk from the small dining room to the small kitchen, from where she came back holding…paper plates and plastic silverware.
“Here, honey,” she said softly. “Here they are. They were right on the counter.”
So sometime between Friday, when Else and I’d left for the town where the lectures were being held, and Saturday morning, when the accident had happened, Bill and Karl had taken a break from packing and playing and gone to the store to buy some unrighteous paper plates and plastic silverware, and, post-death, gift me some righteousness.
I’ve often made the case that grace is that good gift you get when you don’t deserve what you’re getting.
If you deserve it, whatever ‘it’ is, you’re getting something for sure, but it isn’t grace.
It’s a reward, it’s a commendation, it’s a benefit, it’s a consequence.
But grace, grace is an extension precisely of that which you haven’t earned.
Grace is exactly opposite of the way the world works, of the way we work, of what we believe to be just.
If you go to bed when you should, then you will get to go to grandpa’s. If you finish your homework, then you may play. If you wear the right clothes, then you will be accepted by the right people. If you are thin and rich, then your life will be perfect.
Grace messes up that sequence entirely.
Grace changes the game.
In fact, grace stops the game entirely.
Instead of an “if-then” setup, grace re-frames matters in terms of “because-therefore.”
Because you exist, therefore you are worthy. Because you cause harm, therefore you will be forgiven and freed to become someone new. Because you are created by God, you are loved unconditionally.
You don’t have to do anything to receive grace except to be–even being the least and the worst of these.
Wait, we say. You mean, be good, right? Or be obedient. Or be [insert your favorite religious tradition].
Or be not petty.
The word ‘grace’ means precisely that which you don’t deserve. Its original meaning comes from Latin and French words about mercy and pardon.
The more one thinks about grace, the more one sees that if you deserve mercy and pardon, then you don’t deserve grace.
Don and Bill, they overlooked my snobbishness, my irritability, my pettiness, and they gave me a gift that I did not deserve: not just the coffee maker, and not just the paper plates and the plastic silverware, but the gift of seeing that I was more than I was when I was not at my best.
They saw my worst, and they loved my best.
All of them—Don, Bill, and my mama—are gone now.
But I still have the coffeemaker.
And I still have seared into my heart the bittersweet moment of my mother rounding the kitchen door offering me plates and grace from the grave.
And sometimes, when life is still a bit hectic, I find myself paradoxically lifting up really good coffee in a really bad paper cup, and thanking God for the memory of them each, and For the grace of them, and it, all.
My daughter Else and I were recently invited to do a podcast on grief for our Synod’s Youth Ministry and Mental Health Initiative project. You can listen to the podcast here, and hear the rest of them here. It’s a wonderful opportunity for youth leaders, parents, and educations to delve into issues related to youth and mental health, and discover ample resources too.
My new book “I Can Do No Other: The Church’s New Here We Stand Moment,” published by Fortress Press, is now available for purchase! Learn more about it here.
As the holidays approach, consider purchasing gift cards for conversation time with me via OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, or for a stay at the Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center. Contact me directly about either option at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or look up OMG gift cards here, and Spent Dandelion gift cards here.