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Jim Bishop: When Life is Laced With Touches of Grace

Column by Jim Bishop

The five o’clock traffic jam whistle has sounded – yabba dabba doooooo! – time to shut down the computer, turn off lights, lock up the office and welcome the weekend.

Suddenly, I noticed the white ring around the fourth finger of my left hand where my wedding band should be. What happened to this silver symbol of betrothal to my dearly beloved of 41-plus years? I had no recollection of fiddling with the band (it fits snugly but not tightly on my finger).

I frantically searched the office floor and environs and stirred up nothing but a few dust bunnies, all the while thinking to myself, well, it’ll be awhile before I replace the ring. We paid $20 each for our original 24K bands in 1967. Some years ago, I lost my original wedding ring in the saltwater of Ocean City, N.J., and it cost nearly $200 to replace it.

Suddenly, a voice, a strange force – whatever it was – drew me downstairs to the kitchen area. I looked in the sink, and there was my ring, dangling precariously in a slot at the top of the drain. Had I turned on the water again, it would have disappeared forever. The ring must have slipped off into sudsy water when I earlier washed a coffeepot and mugs.

I slipped the wayward band on my finger, breathed a prayer of thanksgiving and marveled at what felt like an unexpected touch of God’s amazing grace.

Another discovery the other day proved a healthy reminder of life’s precariousness and the need to unwrap each day like a precious gift.

My brother Eric contacted me from Pennsylvania for a photo and some information on the late Jesse T. Byler, director of teacher education from 1971 to 1982 at Eastern Mennonite University. Eric has a class reunion and is speaking at an education department reunion at EMU’s fall homecoming this month.

I still had a file on Dr. Byler, and upon opening it I saw a copy of the obituary I had written on him. He died on Dec. 23, 1990 at age 62, a year younger than I am now.

I also found a hard copy of a feature story I had written on Byler and his lengthy struggle with brochiectasis, a chronic lung disease diagnosed in 1955. He managed to persevere in his teaching future educators, despite his debilitating illness. In 1984, EMU established The Jesse T. Byler endowed teaching chair in his honor.

A near brush with death in 1981 found Byler in the hospital with acute respiratory and right heart chamber failure. A year later, he went on a portable respiratory support system 24 hours a day. Throughout that ordeal, he found himself “”rich in relationships,” hardly knowing at times how to respond to all the supportive gestures of support from family and friends.

In the midst of his uncertainty – doctors told him at that time that he had about three years to live – Byler declared that he “greets each day with gratitude, lived in and by God’s grace.”

“It’s a temptation to let life become routine,” Byler said at the time. He tried to avoid that “by doing at least one act of kindness for someone every day.

“Certainly I’ve asked why I’ve had to suffer,” he stated. “But I’m not insisting that God heal me. He could if he wanted to.

“When my time comes, then through death I will breathe fully and deeply the perfect, expanding life of God, eternally well,” Byler told me. “Meanwhile, while I have something to give, I want to live!” He did, for nine more years, until called home in 1990.

Within the past month, I attended two visitations of Old Order Mennonite families who had lost a parent, and I came away amazed at the sense of support and community in those settings.

These are held in the homes of the deceased, take place on two successive days prior to the funeral and last for hours with most extended family members present.

Mourners are surrounded by a deep level of empathy and support. There is laughter amid the mourning. There is faith, hope, love, repeated touches of divine grace that one can almost taste.

The late Swiss theologian Karl Barth said, “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” I am finding that grace so often springs forth in those least expected times and places. I fear that I keep myself so busy that I will miss certain grace-filled moments when they come.

I’m also glad to have my wedding band back on my finger, a reminder of promises made to my significant other and of the touches of grace she bestows on me.

Grace – unmerited, boundless, free. Truly amazing.