Receive the Grace

My dear friend John Leggett has to remind me from time to time to “Receive the grace.” And I find myself saying those words back to him at other times. 

In the library of dozens or maybe even hundreds of recurring words and phrases that inhabit the landscape of our 30 year friendship, this is by far the most frequently spoken. 

I won’t speak for John (though I could 😊), but I think for me the difficulty in receiving grace is something of a vocational hazard. As a pastor, I have carried a self-imposed and mostly unconscious assumption about what my posture should be in the church and in the world. I am the one who is called to be the bearer of the grace of Christ to others. I am to be the strong one who listens to others’ pain. I am to walk into the hospital room, the grieving home, the crisis moment, the pulpit, bearing something of the hope and assurance of faith. 

But who is this “I” who does all these things? I participate in the brokenness that defines all human beings, a brokenness which God has answered with grace. I am a child of God who daily – hourly – is completely dependent on grace. On my own, I am weak. 

For far too long, pastors have tried to hide this reality behind a false veneer of strength, or worse, a wrong-headed definition of “professionalism.” The results are obvious – high burnout rates, rampant substance abuse, and clergy by the hundreds leaving this calling for what they call the “real” world. And the churches they serve are often complicit in this deceit – placing clergy on high pedestals, exacting inhuman expectations, expecting them to carry all burdens while sharing none. 

But not all churches. 

Recent events in my life and the life of my family brought me quite unexpectedly into a place I did not want to be. I was at the end of what I could do and what I could bear. And precisely in that moment of weakness, I and my family were surrounded by the grace of Christ. It came through the prayers of friends, food, heart-felt cards, emails, phone calls, visits, texts, Facebook messages, and many more. 

And I, predictably, had the sudden urge to say, “You don’t need to do that, we’re okay, I know how busy you are, you’ve got so much going on in your own life right now, no really we’ll be fine, I’m sorry to take your time, I don’t want to burden you…” – the whole tired litany was on the tip of my tongue. 

But this time for reasons I do not ascribe to anything other than the grace of God, I found myself saying, “Thank you.” I said “yes, we will accept your gift.” I called a friend to preach for me. I admitted I felt scared and weak. I allowed family and friends to draw closer. I leaned on others. I asked people to pray for me and my family. I wept openly. 

I think – no, I know – these past few weeks are making me a better pastor. God has opened my eyes to the grace that is always present and given me the greater gift of being able to receive it. I have discovered new depths in my marriage as Kim and I walked this path, deepened friendships as I lean on them, a greater closeness in our family as we have supported each other, and that the Body of Christ is not a metaphor, but a holy reality as you have helped me bear my burdens. 

Henri Nouwen, in a book called “The Wounded Healer,” writes, “The imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his.” Christ’s authenticity led him to embrace his own suffering and weakness and to voice it to God and others. How did I ever get the idea my life following Christ should involve any less?

There’s a holy moment that occurs when someone gives a gift to another person. The arms stretch out to give. If the person receiving pushes away the gift, both giver and receiver are impoverished. But if the one receiving opens his or her arms and joyfully and gratefully embraces the gift, the giver is embraced as well, and in that moment the mystery of God’s grace is revealed and light shines in the darkness. 

I cannot begin to express my gratitude and that of my family for the grace embodied in our community of faith and in a wider community of friends and family and colleagues across the country and around the world. 

I am learning each day how to “Receive the grace.” Pray for me as I pray for each of you. 

Between Font and Table

Last Sunday we did something in worship called “Cardboard Testimonies.” This is a way for people to share their stories of faith and of God’s grace in their lives without having to speak. On one side of the card were words that described a situation of life through which the person passed, and on the other the ways God had been present in a healing way, often through the ministries of the church.
It was a holy moment as, one-by-one, twenty-five of our members came out to the center of the chancel and held their stories aloft.
It wasn’t until later that a friend mentioned to me the power of the place where those stories were held, between the baptismal font and the Lord’s Table.
At the font we hear the welcome of God spoken over us through the waters.

At the table we are united with all the saints of every time and place, gathered around a table much larger and more welcoming than we can imagine.

And held in the embrace of this welcoming grace and holy communion are our stories.

The cards told of tragedy and loss, reconciliation and renewal, despair and joy. And as each one flipped over, the words illumined by the sunlit sanctuary, our tears flowed freely with and for one another.

As I reflect on those tears, I am convinced they flowed because we all felt together in that moment the reality of the promises proclaimed in baptism and lifted high at the table in bread and wine:

We belong to God.

We belong to one another.

Our stories are carried in that gracious, mysterious, life-giving space between font and table.

May it be ever so.

As You Were

(For someone in trouble. May healing come quickly.)

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” – Psalm 139: 11-12

I stumble on the twisted root

Look up at the tree that

Tripped me

Rising high above,

Arms outstretched in the widest welcome

Taking everything in

Giving everything away

Creating a canopy under which

All could gather gladly

In joy and laughter.

I think of you

As you were.

A closer look

I see the scars and burns ascending

With the trunk toward the azure sky.


Of how many storms

How many blows

How many fires

That threaten to undo



And yet, it stands.

And I, lying at its mangled feet

Think of you

And how you can be.

May the mystery of love

Which holds the mightiest of trees

And the most fragile scarred hearts

Hold you fast

Bind your wounds

And raise you up

Into the light.

Make it so.

The 9/11 Effect

I was in the car line at Bruno Montessori Academy in Birmingham, Alabama. As the car idled and my five year old daughter gleefully kicked her legs in her car seat, eager for her kindergarten day to begin, I heard a snippet on NPR, saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Of course, there is no need for me to recount how that day unfolded, and the many days thereafter. All of them can be characterized with one word – fear.

Terrorism thrives in its ability to engender fear, because the terrorists know that fearful people are easier to manipulate, easier to bend toward the mindset of the terrorists themselves, a mindset characterized not by concern for neighbor, but only self-preservation. 9/11 was an attempt to terrorize America into a fearful society.

Marilynne Robinson, in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, says that the terrorists largely succeeded. She writes, “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful for me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

I was taken aback by her words, even as I saw the truth of them immediately, in the life of the nation, in the life of the church, and in my own life as well. How easy it is to let fear and anxiety take root; how hard it is to cultivate Christian habits of mind!

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is from Mark 8, where Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. After they give him a range of answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets), he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who responds immediately, “You are the Messiah.”

When Jesus begins teaching that the Messiah will suffer and die, it is Peter again who takes him aside and scolds him like a child, telling him these things will not happen. Jesus turns and looks at his disciples and says, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Then he gathers all the people around and teaches the difference between human and divine things. “Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save them. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their life?”

Setting our mind on divine things. Cultivating a Christian habit of mind.

It is a word our anxious nation needs to hear, especially in a political season when both sides will not hesitate to stoke fear for political gain.

It is a word our anxious churches need to hear, especially in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA), which is easily overcome with fear of decline, loss of influence, and the steady drumbeat of voices who would have us believe division is preferable to unity, and that communities of the like-minded are preferable to diversity.

It is a word I need to hear as a pastor who too easily succumbs to the siren song of self-sufficiency, who forgets too readily that Christ is the Head of the Church and that the church already has a Savior and a future of hope that I am called to join, not create.

And it is a word I need to hear as a husband and parent and son in a season of life of much change in our household, with all the anxieties and fears that attend those changes.

Robinson says in her essay, “As children we learn to say, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

Amen. I intend to cultivate that Christian habit of mind.

For Kim, on Our Anniversary

First date, Arby’s

On the way to church

On a Tuesday night.

A revival. 

Laughter over curly fries,

A short drive to a clapboard church

Singing “Love Lifted Me”

In an old wooden pew

Somewhere close to Paris.

Tennessee, not France.

I don’t remember the exact text 

Or the sermon,

But do recall 

Catching your eye

And the sly smile

Amid the alleluias and amens,

A deeper grace.

When all else is gone,

These remain:




And the greatest of these

Smiles at me from the third row,


In Praise of the “Mundane”

Shots ring out in a church basement, the Bible on the blood-stained table opened to the Gospel of Mark, and nine people are dead, including the pastor. Such horror, and yet…

Amid all the words spoken about the event, the ones that stood out to me were contained in a story that described the pastor’s day that Wednesday leading up to the shooting. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the story said, began his day in Columbia doing some work as a state senator, but then told his colleagues he needed to leave to go to his church in Charleston, where he had an important meeting with the presiding elder of his church district. “There was the matter of the church elevator, long under construction. The budget needed review, and three congregants were officially received as new preachers. One by one they stepped before the group to receive certificates and applause. The meeting in the church basement ended around 8 p.m., and the crowd of about 50 dwindled to 12 of the congregation’s most devout members, who would remain for the Wednesday night Bible study. That was when the visitor, a young white man, came to the door, asking for the minister…the Bible study was open to all, and Mr. Pinckney welcomed him. They sat together around a green table, prayed, sang and then opened to the Gospel of Mark, 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit” (New York Times, June 20, 2015).

My mind kept drifting back to this article as I heard other stories: The family of the slain one by one telling the killer of their loved ones that they forgive him, that they are praying for him, because “our faith teaches us to forgive.” The church opens its doors for worship only days after this horrendous event, singing hymns of hope, preaching a word that says evil and death do not get the last word, proclaiming that anyone who expected them to go out into the streets and riot, “doesn’t know us.” The churches all over Charleston – white and black – tolling their steeple bells in support and grief. Politicians abandon their usual partisan warfare to speak a unified word of support, and people across the nation examine once again our fraught history and ongoing struggles with racial divisions. Hope springs up from devastation, nurtured in the mundane like a seed sown in the earth.

We say at First Presbyterian that we are forming disciples of Jesus Christ, that the work of the church is to join God’s Spirit in transforming lives. Our mission statement is a simple one: “Responding to God’s grace through worship, study, and service.” We speak of the mission of the church beyond the walls of the church. We do this work in so many ways, often seemingly mundane. There are committee meetings and budget decisions. There are Sunday school classes and Wednesday evening Bible studies. Sometimes the elevator breaks or the roof leaks or the parking lot needs to be repaved. In the midst of these things, medical teams go to Beirut and high school youth go to West Virginia, Habitat houses are built and ice cream is churned for Martha O’Bryan Center.

People like me, whose vocational life is centered in the church, can sometimes fall into the trap of worrying whether or not the week after week of worship and preaching, the teaching and formation, the seemingly unending meetings, really make a difference. We scatter so many seeds and sometimes look longingly at the ground for evidence of growth, in others, and in ourselves. But then nine people are killed in a church basement at a routine Bible study after a day of meetings, a pastor is laid to rest along with some of the most devout members of the church, and the very next Sunday the doors swing open and words of reconciliation and hope are spoken once more.

It shouldn’t take such an event for us to see what is always right there in front of us: God is at work through the ministries and missions of God’s church, God is transforming lives in ways visible and not so visible each day, and nothing…nothing at all that we do in response to God’s grace is ever wasted, is ever without impact – from the interminable committee meeting to the singing of a hymn to the swinging of a hammer – God takes up all our gifts and uses them, and us, for the healing and hope of the world. We scatter seeds, but God gives the growth, God transforms lives.

We saw that healing and hope, that growth and transformation, with crystal clarity this past week in Charleston. May we see it with the same clarity in our own midst, for it is surely here, even in the “mundane,” which, by God’s grace, is anything but.

Breaking Bread – A Poem in Honor of our Wednesday Night Live Cooks

Breaking Bread

In Thanksgiving for Nancy, Lucy, and Margaret


Bread is broken

In an upper room, feet wet from washing

At table with a stranger met on the sad road from Jerusalem to Emmaus

Among Jews and Gentiles in a Centurion’s home

By the glimmering lake with five thousand friends

In a hall called Wilson

Bread is broken


French bread rich with butter

And chicken spaghetti, which shouldn’t work, but does

Tortilla chips stacked high on Taco Night

Bread firmly, lovingly embracing hot ham and cheese

Cornbread that settles on the tongue like honey

Topping off the grand champion meatloaf and mac and cheese

Lines out the door for dressing and turkey


Bread is broken


Through the torn and fragrant edges

Through mouthfuls of meatloaf

Sweet tea poured like wine

Children laugh

Friendships deepen

Families slow down and sit

Free from the wheel of activity

To talk and eat and love


Every time, every place, every meal

He is there, as he promised


It is said

Blessed are the feet that bring good news

Let it also be said here

Blessed are the hands that make good food

Feeding bodies

Feeding souls

Sharing hospitality in the form of scalloped potatoes and spaghetti casserole

Holy work, done with joy

And we are grateful

Chris Joiner, May 13, 2015