Monday, November 25, 2013

Extending Grace: The Ministry of Bearing

I can't remember when this idea first crept into my mind. We've been going through an excellent sermon series at church this fall about the facets of the Kingdom of God, things like fellowship, witness, simplicity, covenant, and persecution. It could have been in one of these sermons. Or the idea could have poked up its head in one of my conversations with a mentor or friend. I've also been leading a book study at church on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's pithy volume Life Together. I'm sure the idea partly came about through this book. Simply put, the big idea that's been on my mind and in my heart is the call that we have to extend grace to our fellow human beings.

Bonhoeffer gave me the words to express what this ministry is called in Scripture: the ministry of bearing. Paul writes: "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindess, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another..." (Col. 3:12-13a). As I've thought more about it, my experiences in life recently have given body and shape to this idea of bearing with or extending grace to others. Or, more accurately, life has tested my limited ability to extend grace.

In church a couple weeks ago, my pastor introduced new members to the congregation. He said something like: "We have a divine call to welcome these new members into our congregation and to love them, to delight in their gifts, passions, idiosyncracies and oddities." The congregation laughed, but the truth is plain as day. We're all a bunch of idiosyncratic weirdos. Need any evidence? Spend 10 minutes with another person. Or, better yet, spend two minutes with yourself!

In my book study yesterday, we discussed the ministry of bearing with others as Bonhoeffer describes it. I was still trying to understand what this ministry was, so I asked three questions: 1) What is the ministry of bearing? 2) Have you ever thought of this as a ministry? 3) How do we practice the ministry of bearing? One person very thoughtfully said, "Well, it kinda sounds like putting up with others." We all laughed and agreed. I didn't expect to have my questions answered in one fell swoop, but there it was, clear as day. Bonhoeffer further describes the ministry of bearing:

"The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person's nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it."    
Notice he says that we "break through" to the point of joy. We don't usually get there right away. It takes struggle to bear this ministry faithfully. Perhaps this concept has been so striking to me recently because life has been so ordinary and this is a ministry of ordinariness. What could be more day-to-day than colliding with the created reality of our brothers and sisters? I could count out the examples from today alone in a few short minutes, but I do have two stories I want to share particularly.

The first story is from this summer when I took a day trip with my family to the Oregon Coast. For my family, family vacations are full of laughter and fun, but also memories of personalities colliding and expectations being thwarted. At the very beginning of the day, my dad insisted that he needed to deposit his check in the bank before we did anything else. Somehow, this started us off on a brilliant way of handling each other's "weaknesses and oddities." Whenever someone's oddities poked through and caused friction, we would gleefully shout: "Quirk! Quirk!" Instead of causing more tension, this simple statement released the tension, like the cap being opened on a soda. The tension fizzled away, and we would inevitably burst into laughter. But beyond just releasing the tension, acknowledging each other's quirks gave us insight into each other's needs and wants and gave us an avenue for communication. It opened up the possibility of extending grace to each other, and I learned a valuable lesson.

Bearing with each other isn't always so easy. It doesn't always have a good outcome. But this doesn't change our calling to bear with each other. In fact, I believe that God will, as he always does, extend grace to us as we extend grace to others.

Several weeks ago, my friend and I were cooking pancakes for breakfast. I had made a delightfully fluffy sour cream pancake batter, and my friend was in charge of flipping. As she poured on batter, flipped the pancakes, and slid the cooked hotcakes onto a platter, she told me about the tough time at work she'd had the day before. As she talked, I noticed that she was pressing all the air out of the pancakes with her spatula, thus ruining the airy fluffiness that had so excited me. The words were almost out of my mouth when a thought popped into my mind. She is upset, and she's taking her frustration out on these pancakes. It was a totally mindless act because she was focused on telling me her story. And what was I doing? Worrying about culinary perfection. Then came the three redemptive words: "Extend her grace." And I did. I shut my mouth and listened and ate flat pancakes with a new appreciation.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Month-Gone Highlights

Hello! Thought you'd never hear from me again? No luck! Here I am again, eating a freshly-baked molasses cookie. I don't usually do trial runs of recipes before serving them to guests, but I made an exception for molasses cookies.

Here are several highlights from the last month of my life:

1. Somehow I ended up with two full gallons of apple cider back in October. I went up two Sundays in a row to Green Bluff only to find that the Hansens were completely sold out of apple cider. Finally, I made a special trip up there on a Friday afternoon and got my coveted cider. The next Friday, I got two free half gallons from a friend. I spent a lot of time on food blogs, searching for recipes and ended up making apple cider quick bread, apple cider baked beans (which I ate for a full, long week!), several batches of steel-cut oats, freezing several yogurt containers full, and drinking many warm mugs in the evenings. Ah, fall!

2. On the last Saturday in October, my friend Gerry invited me to a harvest party and hay ride out in the country. The man who hosts the party each year farms a ton of land (like 1,000 acres!) and has a beautiful spot in the country north of Spokane. Right after we arrived, a bunch of us (there were probably a good 50 people there with tons of little kids) hopped into two trailers packed with hay bales for the first hay ride of the evening. I sat next to a lovely older couple, and we bounced along for about half an hour. Tim, the farmer, pulled us with his big, ol' tractor. At one point in the ride, the back trailer that I was on came unhitched from the front trailer when we jounced over a rocky spot. It was tremendously exciting. :)

It was so lovely to crest the hill of wheat-stubbled fields on our hay ride as the sun was setting and the mist was drifting in. We saw a herd of deer and one of my companions pointed out the fiery yellow larches--conifers that lose their needles in the fall--that were striking against the dark green of the Ponderosa pines. We had a delicious potluck dinner with hamburgers and hot dogs and a full table of desserts. Gerry's daughter, daughter's son, and his family were also at the party, and we all went out on a second hay ride in the dark. At first, I thought it would be scary and cold, but then we got distracted by the night sky. The heavens opened and stars burned through, bright and clear. The six-year-old who was with us stared up and said, "Wow! That looks like outer space!" We four adults got a good chuckle out of that. We spent the next half hour looking for constellations and watching for the ghostly lights of the barn that shone through the mist. As you can tell, the party was fodder for an active imagination.

3. Since September, the aforementioned Gerry and I have been cooking meals for a monthly family night at church. The day before Halloween, the youth group hosted a carnival and chili cook-off for the kids and their families. I purchased all the sides for the chili and was there early to arrange them and help the youth director with all the preparations. It was a madhouse when all the kids were there! I sat by myself with my chili when I finally sat down because I was a little stupefied. I rallied, though, and ran the craft table for the quieter kids. Being removed from childhood, it was fun to see the boundless enthusiasm of the kids in their costumes as they decorating cookies, cake walked, and had their faces painted.

4. For the third year in a row, my friend Heidi and I spent the first Saturday evening in November listening to the Whitworth jazz band play with a famous jazz musician, this year the saxophonist Chris Potter. The Whitworth jazz band is fabulous! Heidi and I listened with rapt attention and great big grins. There was one song I loved particularly because it featured a saxophone trio with Potter and two students. They seamlessly slipped the solo between the three of them and it was marvelous. It filled me with delight, and I had to stand up and clap when it was done while also regretting that it didn't go on for many minutes more.

5. Work has been an adventure the last two months. My department--customer support--has a steady work load. In an average week, we get about 400 e-mails from customers about every topic imaginable relating to the Olive Tree Bible Study app, our website, sales, etc. Due to financial tightness, we had to let a person from my department go at the beginning on October. Several weeks later, another co-worker resigned, leaving my department with two people. The first full week in November, my one remaining co-worker was on vacation for a whole week, leaving just me in my department. It was a busy, crazy week, and I learned a lot. About 10 of my co-workers from other departments helped out in the e-mail queue that week, so I got to lead them, answer questions, refine my own techniques and understanding, and work my tail off. It was a good week, but boy was the next week even better with my co-worker back to share the load of people waiting for help! There are still just two of us in support (though still with plenty of help from other departments), so it continues to be draining. I can't wait for a change of pace at Thanksgiving.

Well, those are the highlights! I do have a closing thought for you though. I'm part of a book club during Sunday School at church, and the leader asked me to co-lead this year. We've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, and I'm finding it to be full of challenging and rich passages. I have my dad's version from 1979, and it has so many underlinings and notes and scribbles. It's delightful! I spent a lot of time alone this weekend. Really alone because I hardly saw any of my housemates after Saturday afternoon. It was thus ironic that the chapter we discussed in Sunday School yesterday was "The Day Alone." Being alone always makes me take stock of my life. So much of life is so very ordinary. As I looked back in my planner, so much of what I do day to day is the same: eat lunch and make lunch, walk, journal, look at recipes online, read, talk with my parents, e-mail, ignore chores, fill up the laundry basket, do laundry, fold laundry, and on it goes. And yet, the ordinariness is infused with changing, shifting life. New lessons to learn, challenges to overcome, gratitude to be expressed, and daily life to be shared. Life isn't always easy, but there is always plenty to be thankful for, and today I'm thankful for life, the ordinary and extraordinary both.