Grace in Place of Grace: Emily Greenhalge

November’s post comes to us from Louisiana, courtesy of NazToo-er Emily Greenhalge. Emily is Pastor of Discipleship at GracePointe Church of the Nazarene in Shreveport, LA, where she has served for six years.  She blogs intermittently at https://theostoria.wordpress.com/, and is the mother of three amazing kids.

“As Christ followers at GracePointe, we are called to bless others with the grace we have received so we can point them to Jesus.”

We say this together as a congregation every Sunday before the benediction.  I’ve heard it and said it so many times over the past seven years as a part of this body of believers that it’s become like blood that flows through my veins.  It comes to my mind every time I begin to feel self-righteous and “holier than thou.” It is the answer to my judgemental spirit and critical attitude. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  

Grace.  Undeserved favor of God.  A gift freely given. Something completely out of our hands, but something we’ve been called to give to others.  It’s by grace we have been saved, not by works so we have no reason to boast (Eph. 2:8). It is grace that goes before us and chases after us as we are pursued by a loving God.  It is grace that empowers us to love our enemies and forgive when we’ve been wronged. Grace. Marvelous grace.

So if that’s what we’re called to, why do we keep hearing stories of people who have been deeply wounded by the Church?  Growing up, it was the warring factions of the conservative holiness movement. My own family is still bleeding thirty years later from the legalistic battles of the 80s and 90s. In my high school years, it was the worship wars, where style was the focus and substance was an afterthought.  In college, it was the image of the institution that mattered most. Grace was given until someone got caught and it was made public. In the past few years, we’ve heard over and over about how our “big tent” only stretches so far, and often only in one direction. And in recent months, heartbreaking stories wearing the hashtag #churchtoo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual have shown again that grace is sometimes limited to those whose power and privilege we feel the need to protect.  

Fortunately, these aren’t the only stories we have in the Church. For each tragic failure, there are also beautiful tales of redemption. You see, I have a story that is still being written.  I was given the wise counsel as a young minister to “preach from your scars, not your wounds,” and I’ll admit my wounds are still healing. So rather than bleeding on the proverbial page, I’ll take this opportunity to write about the grace I’ve been receiving, and the grace I feel the Church is being called to give to those who are hurting and broken among us.

I have received such grace recently, at a time when I needed it more than words could express. When I was broken in a million pieces, my local church leaders surrounded me in prayer and support, and grieved with me as I grieved.  I was challenged to think through my feelings and decisions, and they ultimately trusted that God was leading me in the way I should go. My district leadership counseled my pastor to love me through my pain, and then brought my story to their leaders.  I arrived at our District Ministry Preparation weekend prepared to sit before the board of ministry and be told I wouldn’t be granted a license renewal. Instead, my letter to the district board of ministry was received with love and compassion, and my mentors laid hands on me and prayed for me.  At district assembly, one of those dear leaders asked how I was doing. When I told her what my fears had been and how the Church had loved me so well, she hugged me and I heard through my tears as she said, “Emily, the Church believes in you. I believe in you.” Grace in place of grace already given.  

In John’s Gospel, we read about the incarnation of Christ, how God became flesh and entered into our world as one of us, feeling our pain and knowing our struggles.  It’s one of my favorite passages, as I tried to convey to the teens I teach in Sunday school when we studied it.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14-17)

The logos of God, God’s thoughts, God’s person, God’s very being, became flesh and (as the late Eugene Peterson paraphrased) “moved into the neighborhood.”  God’s holy Self became one with God’s creation, experiencing all of the joys and all of the sorrows, all of the victories, and all of the struggles of humanity. Before the Church was ever exhorted to weep together and rejoice together in Romans, Jesus showed us what it means to enter into the broken story of humankind and become a means of grace.  And it is by that grace that God calls us to do the same.

We are a broken people.  We are often a broken Church.  Even as I rejoice in the grace God has given me through the body of Christ, I grieve with brothers and sisters who have not experienced the Bride of Christ at her best, those who have been cast out in an attempt to protect the institution of the Church.  I weep with my friend whose story was not heard when her marriage ended. I mourn with the women who have been told they have no mentors in ministry. I’m wounded with those we have given up on instead of walking with in discipleship. And I suffer with those who have suffered abuse at the hands of those tasked with spiritual leadership. As we hear the stories of such failures of the Church in recent years, we cry out together in a lament of “Christ have mercy.” We grieve with those who are grieving, and it is with great hope that I say we learn from our past failures and grow into the opportunities God is giving us.  

Out of his fullness, we have all have received grace in place of grace already given.  May we give as freely as we’ve received.

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