Upon grace already given.
When I first heard those words, they were as foreign sounding to me as Chichewa. I remember thinking the speaker had misspoke – it sounded like a grammatical error to me, the words literally didn’t compute in my head. Grace upon grace? Grace already given? It was the first time I realized that ‘grace’ was just a church term to me; a word I didn’t fully understand and had never fully experienced. Ironically the pastor of Flood Malawi spoke those words – but in sunny San Diego. I had no idea how the community of both those places were going to shape that word for me and give it new meaning.
I first heard the word chisomo as a name. During my first trip to Malawi in 2012 (which accidentally turned into a trip to South Africa), the last day of our whirlwind seven days in country was spent at Crisis Nursery. Before being whisked off to the airport, we got to spend the morning holding sweet babies and feeding adorable toddlers – aka an activity that is impossible to not enjoy. I held Chikondi, I played with Chifundo, and I rocked Chisomo to sleep. On our drive out, we learned what these names meant – love, mercy, grace. Simple words with so much depth.
Chisomo stuck with me. At the time, I thought it was because it was one of the few Chichewa words I could actually pronounce. For months, I would look back on my time in Malawi and try my best to remember the girl’s name in Kudoku who stole my heart (for the life of me, I never could…). I would remember little Chifundo Kennedy (is there a more regal sounding name?!). And I would always, always dwell on chisomo.
I can’t quite explain my journey to grace – because there aren’t words for it. There aren’t set chapters and there definitely aren’t clear lines. It wasn’t a straight path; it was a lot of forwards and backwards, side steps and wandering in circles. It wasn’t a verse I read or a sermon I heard. It was a long, grueling process. It was heartache. It was a battle. It was confusing. But I can explain one night I’ll never forget:
July 4th, 2013. One of my all time favorite holidays, and I was spending it across the globe away from family and friends and the red, white, and blue. Not only that, but I was also spending it away from my makeshift home of Lilongwe and my team of fellow interns. Due to various circumstances, I was in the middle of Malawi with a short-term team of strangers, showing the Jesus Film in Chichewa to hundreds of villagers – for the second time. If you haven’t seen the Jesus Film, it’s great. It’s also incredibly l o n g.
So, with two hours to kill as I stood freezing in a crowd of foreign strangers (yes, Africa does get cold), I looked to the sky. And I found myself staring at the most magnificent starry sky of my life. As I was completely blown away by God’s beauty, I found myself doing the only thing that made sense to do – worshipping Him. Talking to Him, praising Him, rejoicing in all that He’s done. And as I continued on in our conversation, I found myself being the most honest with Him I’d been in a long time. About fears, doubts, frustrations. I talked about mistakes I made and choices that I thought were right, roads I went down and wrong turns I had made. I laid everything on the table – and for the first time I felt His grace wash over me. I felt freedom like I had never known. I felt the true knowledge of the cross – that my sins aren’t okay and they aren’t admissible, but they are forgiven. I’m chosen. I’m loved. And I’m free. And there is grace upon grace upon grace already given.
But why a tattoo? Why in that place, why that style? Why in Chichewa? Whyyyyyy?
As much as my parents hate the idea of it, I want this to be permanent. I want it engraved in my skin. I want a daily reminder of grace to be there every morning as I wake up and every night as I go to sleep – one I can’t wash off or set aside or hide away.
I love that in order to get chisomo etched into my skin I had to go through an uncomfortable sensation, treat a wound, let my skin go through the healing process, and then watch it all scab off…. to have beautiful end result. Because that was my journey to grace: it was unknown, it was painful at times, it needed a lot of care to get towards healing, and it was definitely a process. But with such a beautiful result. I want to remember that.
I want to walk in grace. I want to live in the knowledge that we are covered in grace, we are restored in His grace, and we are sinking in the ocean that is His grace. But to do that, to remember all of that, I need to choose to walk in that knowledge. One foot in front of the other, every day. For the rest of my life.
I love that I’ll never wonder if I should have gotten a different font. Because I didn’t pick it out of Microsoft Word or decide what looked pretty at a tattoo parlor – my dear friend Jenn drew it for me. Not only is she insanely talented, she has taught me so much about grace over the years – never failing to give it to me, but also modeling how to show grace to oneself. Randomly leading a Bible study with Jenn and Lizzie my sophomore year turned out to be one of the best surprises from Jesus; ‘the trifecta’ has been a life-giving, life-saving friendship that has gotten me through the worst of times as well as the best. My tattoo will always remind me of my beautiful, generous, grace-giving friends.
I realize by getting ‘chisomo’ and not ‘grace’, I’ve officially become one of those. I’m your typical white-girl-gone-to-Africa, now-has-a-foreign-word-on-her-body. At least I didn’t get the outline of Africa like 90% of hip missionaries these days (seriously, why is that a thing!?). I’m that annoying person who is laying claim to a language, a culture, and a country that is not my own.
Malawi isn’t my country of citizenship, but it’s where God called me. It’s where He met me. It’s where He taught me so many things. It’s where He revealed Himself in the most amazing ways. I learned a lot about grace, but that word, to me, doesn’t do it justice. Chisomo captures it so much better. Chisomo means so much more to me. It always will. My Chichewan tattoo represents a season of life that I never want to forget. Ever. It’s so easy to, it’s so easy to slip back into who I used to be and forget all of the lessons Malawi has taught me, shake off all of the ways Malawi has shaped me. I don’t want to do that; I want to carry chisomo with me always.
I’ve wanted this exact tattoo since summer of 2013. And by the time I got it, mid 2015, it meant so much more. After spending 6 months working with The Chisomo Idea – I didn’t get my old organization’s name tattooed on me (sorry, Noel) – coming home required a lot of grace. With myself, because my time in Malawi was nothing how I expected it to be. With people who didn’t understand that, who didn’t understand where I was. Grace with people I honestly didn’t want to give it to.
And that’s the funny thing about grace – we always want it, but we rarely want to extend it to others. At least I don’t. And now I have a reminder, to give grace as I have been given. To walk in grace even when the road is bumpy. And on the days I forget that? On the days I mess up? There’s grace.
Upon grace already given.