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.

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