"It’s all grace,” my dear friend replied. For some reason, I was surprised at the simplicity and firmness of her answer. I’d asked how she was able to face the last stages of cancer with such peace, generosity and good humor. The complete absence of bitterness or resentment in her demeanor and words was striking.
One of my friends once complained about the “unfairness” of her parents-in-law. Her husband was a first son who was competent in his work and conscientious in his care of his old parents. The point of discontent had to do with the parents’ favoring of the younger son, who was lazy and irresponsible, and who did nothing to deserve the extra favor bestowed on him. When my friend and her husband gave anything valuable to the parents, it inevitably ended up in the other son’s hands. While I was listening to my friend, I realized something that she did not understand. This was the parents’ way of loving.
Ministry is befuddling, either in the way the people we serve are just so very strange, or in the way the grace of God catches us off guard—or both. Granted, some out there “get” the liturgy and sound theology we’re offering them, and in admittedly wobbly ways try to embody what the scriptures are about.
My wife and I once toured the legendary Waterford crystal factory in Ireland, where furnaces roar 24 hours a day, powered by gas piped in from miles away. Sixteen hundred employees take turns at three shifts daily. Their training takes years, especially for the glass etchers, the smallest group among the staff.
It is tempting to sit in judgment on others. Sometimes we do it in jest, as Mark Twain did when commenting on Adam. “Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” But sometimes the serpent eats us, and then we judge in earnest.
In his compact book Before God, George Stroup observes that we live in a time when many people no longer understand that their lives are lived coram Deo, before God. Stroup is particularly good in talking about gratitude as the essence of Christian practice. On that topic he quotes Karl Barth: “Gratitude is the precise creaturely counterpart to the grace of God.
We were at the lake, my daily walking spot. I had brought a friend who needed to talk. Her head was down as if she were searching for meaning, hope and traces of God’s ways in the ruts of the muddy path. My head was down too, in silent solidarity. We walked. Suddenly I missed a familiar pitter-patter—my dog was nowhere to be seen.
We watched in horror as both towers lit up, then fell into a cloud of smoke and ash. Then we gathered in the chapel with hundreds who came to pray. I asked the people to name the folks in their hearts and their concern as our prayer before God. The chapel rang with the precious names of loved ones.
The atmosphere is not one of lively and amiable scholarly debate; it is hostile, and the intent is to discredit Jesus. Much is at stake—Jesus’ authority, his role and his identity. Tom Long has called this Jesus’ final exam, because it will be this test that ultimately dooms Jesus in the minds of the scholarly authorities.