The Better Letter: Graceland

Nicole Boyson writes about grace.

Last week’s TBL hit a nerve (new readers and subscribers, welcome). My kids saw the to-do on Twitter (e.g., herehereherehereherehere, and here) and were pleased. They also responded as you might expect: something like, “It’s great, but we know how stupid Dad can be.” Our family FaceTime and Zoom calls this week became a greatest hits laugh fest (which wasn’t even a double album, it was a boxed set) recitation of their favorite examples of my being an idiot. So there’s that.

Thank you for the birthday wishes. I had a great day. 

A reader suggested Kathy Mattea’s “Seeds” in response to last week’s missive. Thank you all for reading, thinking about, and commenting upon what I write. I’m pleased to share it.

This week’s TBL features Nicole Boyson, a finance professor at Northeastern University. “Graceland” – directly below – is her work. It’s wonderful.

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Graceland

Life is hard right now. A global pandemic has infected over 35 million people and killed more than one million, over 20 percent of whom are American. Too many individuals display breathtaking callousness towards human life, denying science and insisting that personal freedom trumps concern for each other. We are in an uneven recession, one that harms the poor more than the wealthy, and if that’s not enough, November 3 – the date of the 46th presidential election – is less than a month away.

We sure could use a little grace.

From a biblical perspective, grace is unmerited mercy, an unconditional favor from God. Its source? None other than His no-strings-attached love for us. 

We have done nothing to earn this grace. We begin our lives in God’s good graces, simply by existing. Being smart, or productive, or Twitter-famous does not curry additional favor with God. He loves us all exactly the same.

Finding grace at Graceland?

“For reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland,” Paul Simon muses about Elvis Presley’s famous home in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Elvis purchased the home and its grounds early in his career in 1957 for about $100,000. 

With no obvious biblical roots, Graceland is named for Grace Toof, prior owner of the 500-acre farm that includes the parcel on which Graceland now sits. Grace inherited the farm from her father in 1894. In 2006, Graceland became a National Landmark, recognized as an “exceptional place” that “forms a common bond between all Americans.” 

Elvis said in an interview: "When I was a child, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times." 

Of course, Elvis’s story ends in tragedy: by putting too much faith in his manager and succumbing to the stress of fame, he faced a declining career, poor health, addiction, and untimely death at the age of 42. 

Yet, every year, hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to Graceland, traveling the Mississippi Delta “through the cradle of the Civil War.” There’s something about Elvis, something about his story, that drives folks there in hordes. Hope for redemption, maybe. Or perhaps the chance that grace will save a “wretch like me.”

Poor boys and pilgrims with families and we are going to Graceland,” Simon sings, recounting his voyage to Memphis in the wake of his second divorce. His words evoke pain.

Losing love is like a window in your heart | Everybody sees you’re blown apart | Everybody feels the wind blow.

 It’s a universal experience, pain. Pain that leaves us gasping for air. Pain that everyone sees, that everyone feels, but that we ultimately must battle, bit by bit, to move forward.

Walking in Memphis

Inspired by James Taylor’s story of overcoming writer’s block by going to a place he’d never been, Marc Cohn, a Jewish singer from Clevelandvisited Graceland. He also stopped by some lesser-known Memphis-area spots, including the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, led by gospel singer Al Green, and The Hollywood Café, where he met gospel singer Muriel Wilkins performing one Friday night. She invited him to sing Amazing Grace with her…

…and in his lovely and haunting song, Walking in Memphis, he reflects on the experience: 

Now Muriel plays piano | Every Friday at the Hollywood | And they brought me down to see her | And they asked me if I would | Do a little number | And I sang with all my might | She said, "Tell me are you a Christian child?" | And I said, "Ma'am, I am tonight."

Cohn said in an interview that the song's meaning surrounds his journey to be baptized in the world of blues music, a sort of spiritual awakening. 

Graceland. Amazing Grace. Putting on a pair of blue suede shoes and taking a stroll down Beale Street. 

Simon expresses hope: “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” 

Together

I think maybe Simon is right, but nothing very good is going to happen until we find a way to extend God’s grace to each other. 

To be extremely clear, extending God’s grace does not mean accepting abuse or being forced to tolerate others that continually act in bad faith. As Jesus instructs his disciples in Luke 9:5, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 

But we still must go to that town. God commands us to extend God’s grace in faith and love. In other words, we have to try. If others do not accept, we must move forward, always forward, wasting no time, acting with love, and not with vengeance. Vengeance is best left to God.

Wandering

Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, as they sing House at Pooh Corner yearn for home: 

I’ve wandered much further today than I should | and I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood.

But being lost doesn’t mean we can’t be found. Wandering away or making wrong turns is part of our journey. Having faith in God’s grace and extending that grace to each other can bring us home. 

Loggins and Messina again:

It's hard to explain how a few precious things | seem to follow throughout all our lives | After all's said and done I was watching my son | sleeping there, with my bear by his side | So I tucked him in | I kissed him | and as I was going | I swear that old bear whispered | “boy, welcome home.”

Welcome home indeed. We may wander, but we can always come back home to God. 

Prodigal children

In Luke Chapter 15, a son runs away and squanders his share of his father’s fortune. Later, the boy returns to his father, humbled, remorseful, and hoping only for shelter....

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20.

That’s grace. That’s unmerited mercy. Available to all of us; we need only humbly accept it.

In the words of my daughter: “God can be disappointed, but he never stops loving us.”


Totally Worth It

Boom. The most disgusting thing I saw last week (filmed by the wife of Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor). The most inspiring. The tweetiest. The coolest. The most noteworthy. The scariest. The tastiest. The funniest. The oddest. The second most disgusting. The most amazing. The sweetest (video). The most ridiculous headlineThrough the looking glass. Are you smarter than a first-grader?

How about Billy Joel in an unexpected way?

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.

— Emily Dickinson


Benediction

“If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”

John Mark McMillan ft. Kim Walker-Smith | How He Loves (Live)


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Thanks for reading.

Issue 34 (October 16, 2020)