The toddler grabbed a stick of blue sidewalk chalk and licked it. His grimace showed that his taste buds worked perfectly.
I cleaned Joey’s lips with my handkerchief and told him chalk isn’t for eating – none of which he understood, of course. Words are a mystery at his age.
I guided his hand downward to the church sidewalk and showed him how the chalk can make pretty blue lines on the ground. Joey was unimpressed. He had a better idea.
Holding the stick of chalk aloft like a scepter, he scampered down the sidewalk, as though he was royalty and this was his kingdom. Then, he stumbled. The scepter flew from his hand.
The chalk rolled beneath an artsy, metal bench next to the sidewalk. Joey spotted the chalk and ducked his head beneath the bench’s sharply angled edge as he went to retrieve it.
Joey and his family were at the church as part of an interfaith program that helps struggling families. Volunteers provided dinner. Afterward, we took the kids outside for playtime while the parents relaxed for a little while.
Little Joey got my attention, and not just because we share a name. He looks similar to me in my baby pictures – same hopelessly thin, curly hair, eerily similar facial features.
I felt like I was looking at one of my baby pictures.
And now, when Joey stood up, that curly-haired head would encounter the unforgiving edge of the bench. Scalp would meet metal. Screams and tears would follow. Maybe some blood, too, and perhaps Joey’s first trip to the emergency room for stitches.
I dashed toward the bench. As Joey reached for the chalk, I stretched my right hand protectively over the top of his head and guided him safely away from the edge.
Joey gave me a quizzical look, wondering why I’d just done that. Then he held his blue scepter aloft and toddled away, murmuring something happy.
In a moment of grace, his noggin had been saved – for tonight, anyway.
Joey will grow up with no recollection of that moment or that night. He won’t recall how awful the chalk tasted or how a stranger’s hand found his head at an opportune moment.
As I watched him ramble away, I wondered how many times in my life somebody had done the same for me, helping me while I was oblivious.
So many people have entered my life at different moments and given me what I needed – protection, encouragement, a hug, direction, friendship, love, stitches, casts, words of healing. I couldn’t have gotten this far without all of them.
I think of grace as the hand that finds our head when we’re about to bash it against a hard edge. Grace also guides us and teaches us — no, you can’t eat chalk.
Of course, grace isn’t a bubble wrap. Life isn’t a Hallmark movie. We get hurt, things don’t work out. But grace is there in those moments, too, ready to sweep us up, wipe our tears, heal our hurts, stitch our wounds, and remind us that we’re always loved and never alone.
And then we toddle away toward our next adventure, flirting with some other sharp edge.
Grace is that mysterious Presence that helps us go where we need and get what we need, even when we don’t know where we’re headed or what we really need.
Even when we try to reject it.
Grace is never optional
Our American ethos of rugged individualism is essentially a rejection of grace. We’re told to be self-sufficient and earn all we have. We’re lectured about taking responsibility for our own heads and, if we bump them, we shouldn’t go crying to anyone — it’s your own fault, leave me alone.
It’s the opposite of grace, which is completely unmerited and essentially needed. Grace is always a collective effort. Grace is never optional for any of us.
We may convince ourselves that we’ve retrieved the chalk without anyone’s help. We can toddle away without recognizing the hand that not only gave us the chalk but also saved us from the sharp edge.
Thankfully, grace keeps reaching toward us.