“Grace before Social Services” has become somewhat of a motto in my house or at least in my own mind. It probably lends more insight into the parenting of my seven, soon-to-be eight, children than I care to admit, but it’s a principle I want to exercise because I so much want others to reciprocate it. It’s an up-to-date version of “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” We don’t do this enough in today’s society. We barely walk, let alone slip on and lace up another’s kicks on our own pedicured feet. The tendency of late, is to automatically assume the worst of others and situations. In general, we lack grace—and dare I say it—especially those of us who self-identify as Christians! Ever read the comments section on a news story or on Facebook? Then you know that what I am talking about is true—crushing. People demanding justice, monolouging online the error of everyone’s way, and the irony of this; this behavior is the exact opposite of what we want so badly. We want people to think and desire the best for us, to conversate with us, and listen to us. We want cheerleaders, encouragers, mentors, and realistic grace-filled friends. Grace-filled strangers would be even better. Amen? However, it seems that the exact opposite is happening. Empathy has seemingly left the building and armchair activism has taken its place.
One of my friends works at a child development center. She adores her job and all the little ones she gets to love on. It suits her mama bear personality well. As she was recounting various stories to me about the darndest things kids say and the crazy things they do, she told me about a little guy that shirked away from her when she reached for his arm to get him out of harm’s way. She inquired as to what was wrong with his arm and he told her he had a really awesome tattoo and his mom removed it. My friend asked if she could see his boo-boo and as he lifted his sleeve, she could see that his bicep was red and swollen and even looked a bit blistered. Probing deeper, she asked how his mom removed it. He replied, “with an eraser.”
Gasp! I am sure that as you read this you are probably grabbing your chest in horror as you imagine an angry mumbling mom with a Papermate Pink Pearl Premium eraser rubbing aggressively on a preschooler’s arm. At least that’s where my thoughts went. I was hoping that my friend dialed the phone right then and there to Social Services. This woman was obviously dangerous. Concerned, she continued her Sherlock Holmes style investigation and found out the eraser was the white Magic kind, which left the little guy with a chemical burn in place of his temporary tat.
Magic Eraser!? The brakes of my pessimistic imagination came to a screeching halt and I told the lynch mob in my mind to lower the pitch forks for a hot second while I figured some stuff out, because maybe this mom was—even bigger gasp—like me. Say what you will, but this tattoo removal process suddenly made complete sense to me. The seemingly harmless rectangle that removes crayon from my wall would probably do an amazing job getting off those supposedly temporary symbols that taunt me with their longevity; lingering on my kid’s skin for weeks like bad perfume in a cheap motel. I am not promoting using household cleaning supplies for eradication, because chemical burns are a real thing, but if I’m being honest, I would have totally done this! I was most likely three or four kids into life before I learned about the danger of chemical burns. Did this make me a bad mom? No it made me a naïve one and there is a difference.
The realization that this could totally be my story, pushed me to stop and ask if they had ever suspected abuse before? “No. Nothing.” My friend answered, “In fact, she’s really great with him and always sweet to the staff.”
She continued to tell me that she called in coworkers to examine his arm, they took pictures and prepared to call the Child Welfare Department, but first someone suggested they phone the director of the center who was on vacation. At this point in the story I am hanging on every word and cringing, because what if the mom really did have a lapse in judgement? Was the government going to take away her boy for an unintentional mistake? The crisis was adverted when the center director after reviewing the photos and hearing the details, told them to record the information in his file and to talk with the mom to see if the stories matched. At the end of the day, they erred on the side of grace, before making a possible life-altering phone call. When asked that evening, the mama embarrassingly shared her mistake and thankfully she left the center with her little guy to enjoy dinner together and their normal bedtime rituals.
I am not trying to downplay the possible seriousness of the matter, the potential for abuse is a reality, and there is definitely a time to phone our friends at Social Services. What I am suggesting is that before we call assuming the worst of someone, before we write an outline for our standards on how to be better humans, could we speak in love with individuals, entertaining the thought that there might be more to the story? Could we slip our foot into the shoe of another for a moment and consider the process that led up to the now?
Eugene Petersen’s The Message phrases the words of Paul in the beginning of Galatians 6 perfectly and points to a life embracing the “Grace before Social Services” principle:
“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.”
- Live creatively, because empathy requires imagination. To be able to identify with others and their possible motives for their actions we need to imagine what they could be feeling or thinking. It’s grown-up imaginary play or as I prefer to call it, mind LARPing (Live Action Role Play, minus the costumes). Whether we realize it or not we do it all the time. For example, my son, Jace, is late getting home from work and didn’t reply to my text, it’s raining outside and I am certain he is dead in a ditch on the side of a windy back road. In my mind, I see the police car turning in my drive, a knock on the door by a uniformed officer has me collapsing to the ground on the entry carpet between a pile of coats and boots wondering if he suffered for very long before meeting Jesus. Here’s another one; my friend hasn’t responded to my texts and she always replies quickly. I glue the phone to my hip waiting for the magical “you’ve got a text” chime, but meanwhile I begin a laundry list of possible offenses I could have committed, because surely that is the only reason she wouldn’t reply. We don’t know the reality of the situation but we build off of what we know, our past experiences, or worst yet, our fears to answer the unknown. Our creativity is wasted on the negative, but what if instead we ran the situations through a positive filter. Our thought life would dramatically change and go something like this; Jace is a responsible kid and a defensive driver I’m glad he doesn’t answer my texts when he is driving. Maybe with it raining like it is, he is helping salamanders cross the roads before they get hit by cars. Such a good kid. My friend must have taken the homeschool lessons to the outdoors on this beautiful day or maybe she ran to the post office with that pile of packages in her office, I know she’s been putting it off. I’ll check back in a couple hours after I get dinner ready. This way of thinking allows our creativeness to assume the best of others and ourselves. The reality of the situation is still unknown but our imagination crafts a story framed in grace by utilizing what we know, past experiences and our hopes, not our fears and paranoia.
- Restore others. If you believe in Christ and have been walking with him for a while you know there is nothing beyond his restorative power. We need to speak that power over people, because restoration is encouraging. Believe it or not most people are aware of their faults and mistakes, we don’t need to set up pie charts and board meetings to make everyone else aware. What most don’t know is that beyond the faults and screw-ups there is a hope and a great love. Another translation says to “gently and humbly help the person back on the right track.” Judgment is far from humble or graceful and it’s not our job, most of us want it to be, so many of us think we are chief judge (ahem, comment trolls), but the truth is, it belongs to God alone. Ironic that most tattoo parlors get that word out about this better than churches, “Only God can judge me.” Don’t go collecting the unemployment check yet, we still have a job; love God; love people—want for them the same stuff you want for you. Simply put; Praise God! Encourage folks! If you don’t have anything nice to say, figure out something nice to say!
- Examine yourself. Maybe, just maybe it is possible that you could wind up in the same situation. “Well, Erica,” you might be thinking, “your example of the mom was an accident, she didn’t know any better, what about people who choose to do sinful things? I know better, that wouldn’t be me.” To that I reply, “Oh, do you now?” Funny how we know things are wrong, but yet we do them anyway. My boy Paul says in Romans 7, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” Every morning I wake up with the best intentions of being a great person and living for God and then I walk out my bedroom door. Life comes at me and the battle with my sinful nature begins. I know it’s not right to speed, but I’m late for an appointment and I push the gas pedal a bit further than allowed. I know I shouldn’t yell at my kids, but for the fifth time this week an entire roll of toilet paper has mysteriously found its way into the commode and one of my precious offspring has decided to repeatedly flush in an effort to help. Maybe for some it’s bigger than plumbing induced screams, maybe it’s I know I shouldn’t take a hit of this joint or my nightly glass of wine is turning into a nightly bottle of wine, but I just need to make it through the crazy that is my life. Or, I know that this relationship is not healthy but this guy at work seems interested in getting to know me for me and it makes me feel young and important again. Failure and mistakes are not very far from any of us, in fact they are like mythological sirens singing to us waiting for us to follow their songs, disguising the dangerous as harmless or necessity.
- Stoop down, reach out, share burdens. You might be thinking, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” You’re right, we don’t have time for it. You’ve got to make time for it. Reaching out and sharing burdens means relationship. It’s tedious and time consuming and most times really hard work, but all good things are. Wanting the best for someone, like really truly wanting the best for another human, means giving the best of ourselves and get this, giving the worst too. We are not saviors, Jesus has that job. Remember ours? Lovers. We are called to love God and love people. So instead of pretending we have our crap all together we need to be honest. Share our struggles, our weaknesses, our failures because this is what makes us human. This is what makes us relatable. This is what makes real relationship. When we humble ourselves and begin to let people see behind the velvet curtain of our lives, our God suddenly become more attainable and their lives might not seem so sucky after all. People don’t need handouts they need hands out to help lift them up and then, at least for me, I want that hand to hold mine and journey with me at least for a little while.
- Don’t think yourself better than. In Deuternonomy 17 Moses relays the message from God that if when they enter the Promised land and are tempted to get a king then they need to make sure that he copies for himself “this body of instruction” which were the laws of the time. The newly selected King would need to do his copy work in the presence of the Levitical priests for accountability. After he wrote it all down, which certainly had to be a task, that scroll had to always be with him and he was to read it daily because as Moses wrote, “this regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens.” (Deut. 17:20) I profess to know pretty much nothing about monarchial societies, but I would assume that the king of a kingdom would definitely carry some leverage and would be held in higher esteem by the people than an everyday worker. However, in God’s plan he says the king and the peasant are equal. In Proverbs 22:2 It says, “the rich and the poor have this in common; the lord made them both.” Children’s author Taro Gomi puts it this way, “Everybody poops.” God wanted to make sure that the king should not think or feel he is above everybody else, there was an equality regardless of class, assignment, or position. People, we’re equal.
Grace before Social Service. This motto, isn’t for chumps and it can’t be done alone. We need others to encourage us when life gets tough, to help us up when the world beats us down, and share stories so that we know we are not alone. Most of all we need God to help us live creatively and love well, because this is hard stuff and it stretches us outside the safe boundaries of our comfort zone. It also knocks us off the pedestal we have unintentionally, or maybe even intentionally, found ourselves upon. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1- 2 that if we don’t judge others, we won’t be judged. However, if we choose to not heed the warning and start dispensing our arbitrary opinions, well then we need to be prepared, because the standard we use in judging others is the same standard which we will be judged by. Together we can do this. We can extend one another grace before assuming the worst of each other and in doing so can avoid causing additional harm. We’ve got to love, it’s that simple.
Here’s some additional encouragement:
Galatians 6:2-3 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.
1 Corinthians 10:24 Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others.
Galatians 5:14 For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude