Dan Allender says that grace is so incredibly radical that most of our congregations can’t deal with it. He then said that a pastor has to give it out in little pieces until the kids are through college.
Last night, I was teaching a course on grace at the seminary and realized that what I was teaching the students was dangerous stuff. Not only that. I realized that if they bought it, lived it and taught it, I was setting them up for a lot of pain and maybe even for some career adjustment…i.e. losing their jobs.
So I gave the students the Allender quote…and talked about being careful not to give too much too soon because they would be of no help to anybody if they had to leave the ministry and go into turnip farming or something.
During the class, we were talking about church discipline and whether or not public confession (beyond the leadership) to the congregation was necessary. One of the students said that he didn’t think so because the maturity level of most congregations was such that they didn’t know how to handle sin biblically and with grace, and so could end up destroying the one who had confessed.
Then during the break, one of the students followed me out to the patio where I was smoking my pipe. I said to him, “Jim (not his name), I’ve been watching your face and your reactions to what I’ve been teaching and you really get it don’t you?”
He laughed and said that he did because he had to for his own sanity. Then he told me a horror story about how he had sinned and how he was disciplined publicly. He told me about how he had gone into a major depression and how shame had defined his life, his relationships and his ministry. He then said, “If I had not discovered God’s grace and how radical it was, I would not have survived.”
It almost goes without saying that mostly the church isn’t very safe for anybody…and especially for pastors. It also goes without saying that it ought to be a goal of a pastor or a leader to try and remedy that. The question is how one gets from here to there without losing one’s job, dividing the church and creating—in the sometimes angry reaction—a church which is less safe than it was before one started?
I don’t have the foggiest.
I suspect Jesus had the problem in spades and it doesn’t hurt to check out what he did. Can you imagine knowing the truth (all of it) and trying to communicate it all the while knowing that we wouldn’t understand and would, in fact, kill you for telling us? Can you imagine living in the light and personifying love when dealing with people like us? Can you imagine what it would be like to come from the throne into “the silent and dark planet” where the residents missed what God was really like? Do you know what it cost to be a friend of sinners and drunks, to consort with prostitutes without sleeping with them, to speak truth to self-righteous power, and to love us when we didn’t deserve it?
Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter who was not altogether happy about Jesus washing his feet? Jesus said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” And then Jesus said to his disciples, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So it is permissible, I think, to be incremental.
Again, I don’t know how one moves a congregation or a people toward the light of God’s radical grace without losing one’s job. I do know that it’s important to speak truth…even if you can’t speak all of it. I know that it is important to confess your sins…the ones that won’t get you fired. I know it’s important to somehow love self-righteous people without being self-righteous, to be unconditional when others are very conditional with you, to be authentic without being stupid, and to be clear about your own neediness without being a weenie.
And then, I suppose, one has to trust that God will be involved in the process.
One other thing I know is that you have to have some people around you who love you enough to tell you when you’ve sold your soul and rationalized that transaction with the excuse that the congregation wasn’t ready.
So, to use the words of my late friend, Jack Miller, tell your congregations that the Bible is summed up in two sentences: First, cheer up; you are a lot worse than you think you are. And second, cheer up; God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.
Just don’t be too specific until they are ready.