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.