Pastoring In Awkward Grace
"So what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a minister. Youth Pastor. Work mostly with middle and high schoolers."
"Really? No sh--? Get outta here!"
Tony was a retired New Englander with a sharp tongue and some strong opinions about... well, everything. Including his thoughts on the Catholic Church and religion in general. I met him in a park while our youth group was on a mission trip to Boston. He happened to be on his walk while we were helping an after school program and was curious who we were, what we were doing, and most importantly why. He thought it was great that a group of students would give up a week of summer vacation to sleep in a dorm, ride the T, and spend their days serving others.
The part that stands out the most was his off the cuff, genuinely engaged reaction to finding out I was a pastor. That was a moment of awkwardness. Not because he cussed. I went to public school. You really have to try to offend me. I've heard, and been called, much worse. It was because of when he said it. I never thought of my background and experience as Southern, but I gotta be honest, that was a first. Normally when people find out I'm a pastor they either clean up their language or they admit they've got a cousin or grandpa who's a Baptist pastor (apparently everyone in Kentucky is related to a Baptist pastor).
What I appreciated most about Tony was that he didn't put up a pretense or silver lining. He was who he was, and his reaction to my answer was genuine. He didn't have the cultural niceties that western Kentucky had. He didn't know "you're not supposed to cuss in front of the preacher." He was himself, and he taught me a powerful lesson of awkward grace.
Awkward grace is where we find ourselves bumping up against someone who's not from our bubble, and the situation causes us a certain level of awkwardness. Let's be honest, if you're a conservative Christian from Nascar Country USA, chances are you've not had a lot of exposure or time around the LGBT community, minorities, economically disadvantaged, or people who cuss like it's an art form. As the regional and geographic distinctions continue to dissolve, and as culture moves past its relatively theistic worldview and moral structure, we're going to bump up against people whose lives are very different from our own.
In those moments of awkward (and don't pretend you don't feel a little awkward), we have two choices:
1) Attack the awkward
2) Embrace the awkward
Attacking awkward is where we push back on the uncomfortable and launch against it. My concern is that this is how many Christians want to engage the uncomfortable. We want to attack it. We want to push the awkward away and marginalize it so that what's left is most comfortable and most similar to ourselves. Certainly there's a place for the policy and sociological emphasis on morality and an ethical obligation to seek good, but in many ways Christians have lost their place as the cultural and social majority. Certainly that comes with its challenges, but nowhere in the New Testament were Christians ever promised positions of power that come with their faith. Nor were they ever commanded to "reclaim" or "take back" something that was never really there to start with.
Embracing the awkward is where we step into a situation that's not our normal, and we recognize what's going on and appreciate it. One time our church was given booth space at a community event, and our spot was right next to the University secularism/atheist society. While sharing hot chocolate, we embraced the awkward with them that someone, somewhere, had a pretty good sense of humor. When we embrace the awkward, we're putting down the sword. We're putting away our natural response to shield our eyes or run or chastise someone for a lifestyle or belief that we find incompatible.
Jesus' words in Matthew 22 about the Greatest Commandment show us that it matters how we treat our neighbor. Loving our neighbor doesn't mean endorsing, condoning, or supporting something we might be objected to or find outside of God's design. It does mean that we love our neighbor. Even when it's awkward. We love our neighbor because they're made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), they're someone for whom Christ died (Romans 5:8), and in order that we can serve and seek their good (Jeremiah 29:7).
Pastors, embrace awkward grace. Our churches cannot be places like Mark Twain described, where good people go be around other good people to hear about how they're good people. Awkward grace means that we position ourselves as open to our community, open to the hurting, open to the downcast, open to the ones not like us, and open to the incredible grace of God that transformed us. Point people to Jesus. Trust the Spirit to work on their hearts. Pray that God would make all of us who call on His name more into the image and reflection of Christ.
Grace is awkward. So embrace it, enjoy it, and have a laugh with a guy on a park bench who thinks "it's <bleeping> cool that your life is different." Those moments are gifts of God for us to create margins for grace, for God to work in people's lives.
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Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.