The Practice of Grace

A carpenter told me once that, in theory at least, he could build a house with three tools: a hammer, a saw and a T-square. God has equipped us pastors in many wonderful ways, beginning with the message of the cross, but these three tools seem most indispensable for our work: authority, wisdom and grace.

And the greatest of these is grace.

Pastors, like all believers, are agents of grace. But we dispense the grace of Christ as no other believers do. We are shepherds. Search as we might for a word more suited to our contemporary culture, shepherd is the only word that will do.

If we hope to understand what we’ve been called by God to do, we have to step into a foreign world of sheep and pastures, folds and staffs, night watches and wilderness searches.

Look hard at the timeless figures “keeping watch over their flocks by night”—patient, longsuffering, committed to the often lonely routines of care. That’s how God wants us to see ourselves. In fact, that is one way God sees Himself.

Pastoral superpowers?

No one is born with the aptitude for being one of the Lord’s shepherds. No one starts planning a career thinking, I guess I’ll go into the practice of grace. But when we are called, God gives us a miraculous instinct for the work. We commonly call it “a shepherd’s heart.”

While I suppose some pastors have personalities that give them a leg up, no one has the makings of a shepherd apart from God’s grace. You think you’re headed for a career in business or education, a trade or an art, and the next thing you know, you’re standing in some pasture with a shepherd’s crook in your hand, surrounded by sheep. It’s a career comedown, unless you know about grace.

An old TV show, “The Greatest American Hero,” introduced a young schoolteacher who discovered he had superpowers he couldn’t quite get used to. The opening sequence each week showed a guy pulling a kind of red Superman suit out of a suitcase with a wary, what’s-going-on-here look on his face. The next thing you’d see was him in his suit flying headlong into a wall, then making a flailing crash landing onto rocks. When he finally did fly off the edge of a building, he wobbled precariously.

Learning to pastor is a lot like that. Pastoral grace is a kind of superpower God gives, and at first we don’t quite know what to do with it. We put it on, perhaps in a service where older, stronger believers than ourselves stand around us, their hands pressed on our shoulders, conferring a cape of grace.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t feel any different on my first official day as a pastor, except that a sense of responsibility and insecurity weighed heavily. Yet in the days and weeks that followed, I found myself dispensing the grace of Christ with an effect that was new to me, and something of a surprise.

I had seen God’s grace work before when I shared the gospel, taught Scripture or counseled the young adults I worked with. But with this new role, I gradually realized God had given me a Christlike instinct for shepherding that was new to me. It was as though I had received a blood transfusion from the Good Shepherd. If you’re a pastor, you probably know what I mean.

These strengths and responsibilities don’t come upon any of us suddenly. We realize them gradually, even before anyone calls us pastor. And none of us come by these instincts naturally. All we have and all we do as shepherds of God’s flock—as pastors—are grace-gifts, spiritual instincts as foreign to our natures as flying. I still run into walls sometimes and wobble as though I’ve never done this before. But I am, by a miracle of God’s grace, a shepherd.

Taking in grace

In the books and conferences urged upon us as pastors and in the pastoral models put before us, we feel a kind of relentless pressure to be better strategic and visionary leaders, more compelling communicators, more astute theologians, and better culture-shaping evangelists. With good reason. Leadership, preaching, theology and outreach are our work, and often our weaknesses.

But all of these other assignments get in line behind Peter’s instruction to us, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.”

I heard somewhere that tug boats move huge ships by bumping them. Bump. Bump. Bump. And slowly the great vessel turns. Pastoring is like that. We bump lives with pastoral graces—sermons, services, meals, conversations, touches of kindness and discipline, even our waiting—and over time we help people become more like Jesus. Miraculously, we become more like Him in the process as well.

Grace feeds on grace. If pastors are to dispense grace every time we turn around, then we need to take in grace the way runners take in carbs before a marathon. Jesus is our manna, our living grace, the bread of heaven. When we don’t get enough of Christ we get spiritually lightheaded and weak in the knees.

What’s worse than weakness is that pastors who are not nourished by Christ’s grace get crotchety, indifferent or suspicious around God’s people. We take on a Pharisee scowl every time people don’t perform. Our flocks stop seeing Jesus through us. Our Wordwork takes on a loveless clanging.

Our work really is unique, a mystery even. Pastors are Christ’s Wordworkers. We are in the practice of grace. For such an earthy job as shepherding, it is amazing what sacred things we handle and what holy people we lead. It is a wonder that our hands and hearts aren’t singed.

Excerpted with permission from Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls, by Lee Eclov. Moody Publishers. Copyright 2012 by Lee Eclov. Available from NextStep Resources.

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