One of my favorite stories of grace is the Prodigal Son. He blows everything, hits rock bottom, then comes to his senses, and heads back home.
He has a carefully prepared speech geared to diffuse what he presumes will be his father’s anger and disappointment. “No way do I expect that you’ll take me back as a son. I know I don’t deserve that. The best I can hope for is that you’ll be kind enough to allow me back as a hired hand–as one of your slaves.”
You know the rest of the story. His father exceeds the prodigal’s (and our) wildest imagination. He displays unimaginable grace. The father won’t hear any of the son’s pitch to be a hired servant. The prodigal is a son, through and through, and is fully restored into the family again. The best robe, a ring and sandals–all privileges reserved for family–are given to the son. To top it off, the father orders that a blow-out party be thrown in the prodigal’s honor.
Who doesn’t love this story? Well, okay, other than the prodigal’s brother those of us who identify with the older, more responsible brother. But otherwise, we can’t help but feel the thrill of such love and grace lavishly given by the father.
Lately I’ve been wondering how the prodigal handled his father’s generous acceptance and joyous celebration? I’ve been imagining what it was like for him to have a pricey ring on his finger, an expensive robe on his back, and signature sandals on his feet, knowing full well where he’d just come from.
How did he handle being the center of such a joyous and excessive celebration–dancing and wine and food and slaps on the back and hugs and kisses–after such self-indulgence and wastefulness, fully aware of the pain he’d caused his dad?
After all, the prodigal’s behavior wasn’t just the whim of getting carried away being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, his was the act of premeditated selfishness and rebellion.
How could the prodigal take all this in? How did he stay and party? What kept him from slinking out of the room in shame?
This speaks of the courage it takes to embrace God’s grace. While we glibly sing of amazing grace, truth is, grace is uncomfortable.
Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize the discomfort of grace. When facing the shame of a particular failure, I often felt it would be easier to run away and hide. That way, I could continue to nurse my sense of unworthiness and beat myself up. To receive family and friends’ love, forgiveness and acceptance has demanded more courage than I thought I had.
It came to a critical mass point a few weeks ago. I was asked to present a marriage seminar and do the Sunday sermon at a friend’s church. The response was moving. People responded with great affirmation and reported how helpful my presentations were to them. I could sense God speaking to me that it was time to move forward and not let my past cripple and define me.
I recognized that I was (and am) at a crucial juncture in my life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, I sensed the Father saying, “It’s time to embrace your calling and ministry. To hold back because of your shame is not humility. It is cowardice.”
Embracing grace, with its strange mixture of joy and discomfort, seems crucial to being the good enough pastor.