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. 

Advertisements

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.

Signs

Of how many storms

How many blows

How many fires

That threaten to undo

Topple

Consume?

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.