When I was a child, I often wondered what God looked like. I became certain that I and the whole universe were created by God, but I never could quite grasp how God was made. Now I understand this is a mystery of God, something that I may never comprehend. I finally satisfied my childhood curiosity by explaining to myself that before there was anything else, there were big hands - strong, firm, yet gentle hands of God - that suddenly waved and the rest of God was here.
That childhood image might sound silly, but as I think about it now I realize the hands of God are something that are not silly at all, or strange either. The hands of God are very comforting to me, because there have been so many times in my life when I have felt those hands gently, yet firmly pulling me along, or holding me up when I was about to fall or simply wrapping around me when I need embracing. I have experienced those supportive hands many times this summer - as my mother was dying, as my husband was in the hospital, through two emergency room visits with my daughter, numerous changes and projects at the Parish House and through the storm and aftermath we all endured at the end of June.
For me, these hands of God are part of the great mystery of grace, a gift of life from God to each of us. It is a gift of a loving relationship with God, not just through other people, the church or circumstances - although these can bring us to God - but a personal, caring, profound relationship with God. And it is a relationship that God seeks for us.
Prevenient Grace has been defined as the courtship period of our relationship with God. It is a time when God is reaching out to us, wooing us to the very heart of God, to the place where our relationship with God begins, and continues throughout eternity. It is God seeking us, not waiting for us to seek God.
The history of God's dealings with humankind is one of God constantly offering us a relationship. Remember Noah? God reached out hands to Noah and his family, saw them through the flood and then made a covenant between God and Noah and every living creature to endless generations.
To Abraham, God reached out those hands and made a covenant with him to be the father of God's chosen people so blessings would be upon him and his descendants.
To Moses, God reached out those hands and made a covenant of redemption to people who had been enslaved for generations.
Time after time, God has reached out those hands. And then, the ultimate covenant was established through Christ our Lord, when God reached those hands out to the whole of humanity and offered grace and eternal life for all the ages. This is God's grace and love, given to us without price.
This grace that God has for us is divine love, and it comes to us from God, by God's own initiative, not something that we do. My favorite psalm is 139. In this psalm, the writer understands God's love for us and God's desire for us to live in constant companionship with God. God has known us since we were formed in the womb, through everything that has happened since, and God still longs deeply for us to live in a relationship of God's grace:
"For it was you who formed my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for you are fearful and wonderful." (Psalm 139)
We receive grace through God in Christ Jesus as a gift freely given without any strings, without any price, and it is that grace that sustains us. The grace of Christ is all that we need for an eternal relationship with God.
There is never a time in our lives when we are so far away from God that we cannot respond to God's offer of love. From the time that we are conceived until the time we accept this gift, prevenient grace is at work in our lives, keeping us close to God even when we might want to be as far away from God as possible.
Recently, I met a man who told me he just felt worthless. None of us is worthless, because God made us in the image of God. That means that we are similar in nature to God through intellect, will and the capacity to love. A friend of mine in seminary put it this way: each of us is formed by God with a spark of the divine within us. It is that spark of the divine in us that continually draws us to God.
God pursues each of us in different ways. Sometimes it is through other people or even events. Sometimes it is through the church, maybe through the proclaimed word or through the sacraments, which are symbols of God's love. In many ways, we experience God's longing for us through the Holy Spirit as the Spirit speaks to our minds and warms our hearts. Sometimes God reaches out to us in ways that have nothing to do with church or religion.
One of the most significant experiences of prevenient grace for me came 21 years ago, shortly after the birth of our first son. It was during one of our nursing times and Ethan was not eating. He simply looked up at me with his big, blue eyes and cried. Each time I tried to get him to eat, he would start to cry. At first, I remember thinking that I was going to get so frustrated at him that I was going to be angry. So, I took several deep breaths and simply watched him.
I started thinking about why I was frustrated and in a flash, I knew. Throughout my pregnancy, I thought about being able to nourish my baby and how I could furnish all the nourishment that he would need in those first months of life. When he nursed fine, he gained weight and I knew that he was healthy. That day, my overwhelming feeling was that I had so much to give him, it was the best I could give him and he did not want it. I felt so sad and so disappointed. I didn't want Ethan to go somewhere else for his nourishment.
That experience was an insight for me into how God's grace is there, just waiting for us before we ever come to realize it ourselves. I see this image of God waiting patiently for me, knowing that God has everything that I need to nourish my soul. And sometimes I look up at God with my big blue eyes and cry. I am hungry, but I don't seem to want what God has to give me.
We are all like that. God has so much to give us, everything we need: strength, guidance, love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, light and peace.
The good news is that God waits patiently for us. God even nudges us toward the time when we can realize and accept wholeheartedly a deep, deep relationship with the One who knows us and loves us best.
To God be the Glory!