The 53-year old Frank Drum in the novel, “Ordinary Grace,” begins his narration by saying that in 1961, when he was 13 years old, the deaths of his sister and four others in his small southern Minnesota town were not completely tragic. These deaths also brought him wisdom by “the awful grace” of God in accordance with a quotation from Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, that suffering and pain, “against our will, [bring us] . . . wisdom through the awful grace of God.” 
The reader thus immediately is faced with two terms: “ordinary grace” and “awful grace.” Do they mean the same? Or are they different concepts? And are they different from “divine grace”? The novel does not answer these questions.
Towards the end of the novel after many horrible deaths, Frank’s father, Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister, repeats the Aeschylus quotation. Frank responds with this pithy, skeptical question, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) That was the only other reference to “awful grace” I found in the novel.
Similarly the only time I found the term “ordinary grace” used was in Frank Drum’s description of a lunch at the church pastored by his father. The lunch was just after the funeral service for Ariel Drum, the pastor’s daughter and Frank’s sister. Rev. Drum was quietly composing himself for what everyone expected to be a thoughtful, lengthy prayer of grace before the meal was served. Ruth Drum, the pastor’s wife and the mother of Ariel and Frank, rudely interrupted the solemn silence. “For God’s sake, Nathan, can’t you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace?” (P. 269.) (Emphasis added.)
Everyone at the lunch was stunned into a nervous silence. Jake Drum, Frank’s younger and stuttering brother, broke the quiet and surprised his embarrassed parents and the others with these three words: “I’ll say grace.” Then Jake, after a brief stutter, prayed, “Heavenly Father, for the blessings of this food and these friends and our families, we thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)
Frank, who was startled and frightened by Jake’s announcing he would say the grace, afterwards looked at his brother “with near reverence and thought to myself, ‘Thank you, God.’” Frank also commented that this grace was “so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)
Therefore, a simple answer to the question about the meaning of “ordinary grace” is it was the simple prayer offered before lunch by an ordinary person, a young boy without any theological education.
But this is too simple an answer, in my opinion.
Immediately after saying this prayer, Jake’s stutter disappeared, and he told his brother that he thought he never would stutter again. Jake added that this change was a miracle that happened without his seeing a light or hearing a voice. Instead, Jake said he “wasn’t afraid anymore” and if “we put everything in God’s hands, maybe we don’t any of us have to be afraid anymore.” (Pp. 281-82.) Their mother concurred, saying, “it was a miracle by the grace of God.” (P. 292.) (Emphasis added.)
In other words, although the prayer itself may have been an “ordinary grace,” Jake’s being able to say it and its impact on his stuttering were examples of God’s grace or divine grace.
Another example of divine grace entering the lives of the people of this small town in 1961 through the words of an ordinary person was the sermon by Rev. Drum on the Sunday after Ariel’s death.
- Rev. Drum said that the events of the past week had caused him to think about “the darkest moment in the Bible [when] Jesus in his agony on the cross cries out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’” In “that moment of his bitter railing [Jesus] . . . must have felt betrayed and completely abandoned by his father, a father he’d always believed loved him deeply and absolutely. How terrible that must have been and how alone he must have felt. . . . Jesus . . . saw with mortal eyes, felt the pain of mortal flesh, and knew the confusion of imperfect mortal understanding.” (Emphasis added.)
- Rev. Drum continued with a personal confession. “I see with mortal eyes. My mortal heart this morning is breaking. And I do not understand. I confess that I have cried out to God, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’” (Emphasis added.)
- “When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost,” Rev. Drum added, “what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, . . . except to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken?”
- “I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians [I Corinthians 13:13], Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night, it’s still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.” (Emphasis added.)
- “And in your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.”
- “And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. . . . The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”
- “I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.” (Pp. 194-95.) (Emphasis added.)
Frank commented that he “left the church that morning feeling, as I do to this day [40 years later], that I had experienced a miracle, the one promised by my father who had spoken a truth profound and simple.” (Emphasis added.)
For me, these examples and the rest of the novel suggest that there is no difference between ordinary grace and divine grace, which for Christians refers to acts of favor or gifts from God toward humans that we have not earned or do not deserve. Indeed, Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (II Corinthians 5: 20.) This theological issue is left to the reader to ponder.
The novel reminds us that death comes into everyone’s life, often at unanticipated moments. In other words, death exists in the midst of life. The key issue for those affected by death of family members and friends is how do we respond. Funeral or memorial services always remind me that my days are numbered and that I do not know when my death will arrive. Therefore, I should live each day as if it were my last and be present in the moment. Despite this obvious conclusion, I too often do not live that way.
The novel also reminds us that children, here the 13-year old Frank and his younger brother Jake, can be strong and insightful even when faced with stressful events like the death of family members and friends. Indeed, the two boys seem stronger in some ways than their parents, at least in Frank’s account.
Of course, we are hearing the account of this year from only one participant, 40 years after the fact. We undoubtedly would have other perspectives if there were reports from at least the other members of Frank’s family.
Near the end of the novel Frank, now a high school history teacher, acknowledges these limitations of his account of that summer when he says that “when you look back at a life, yours or another’s, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much is lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open, a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses . . . . [W]hat I recall of that . . . summer . . . is a construct of what stands in the light and what I imagine in the dark where I cannot see.” (P. 302.)
Indeed, Frank says, “there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed. . . . I’m aware that Jake and my father recall things I don’t and what we remember together we often remember differently. I’m sure that each of us has memories that for reasons our own we don’t share. Some things we prefer remain lost in the shadows of our past.”
“Ordinary Grace” offers an extraordinary exploration of grace and wisdom. The five deaths in one summer in a small town also allow the novelist’s mystery-writing skills to peak through. Reading the novel has many rewards.