Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dishing Out Mercy

The waitress targeted our friend for her request. We were eating together at a restaurant when our server approached him. “I’m giving you this, but I’ll take it off your bill,” she said as she placed in front of him a dessert he did not order.

“I’m in trouble,” she added when he looked perplexed. “I got it out to eat myself, but I’m not supposed to do that unless I’m on break. So I brought it to you.”

She turned away, leaving the four people at our table to try to make sense of what just happened. Meanwhile, the cheesecake looked just as tempting to our friend as it apparently had been to the server. He picked up his fork.

“You must be really special for the server to bring you dessert you didn’t even order,” we teased.

When the woman brought our bills she slipped our friend’s under his dessert plate. “I brought you the cheesecake so my manager would think it was yours,” she explained. “I could have lost my job.”

“And I ate it,” our friend said easily, “so as it turns out it was mine.”

“I had to put the cheesecake on your bill,” she continued. “Otherwise my manger would know. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” she added with a touch of defiance. “

Termination for eating on the job? It did sound like a cruel and unusual punishment; maybe there was a back story.

“I’m going to give you the money to pay for it. I just can’t let my manager see me. Can you wait until my break? Maybe meet me outside?”

As she talked, I watched the woman carefully. It crossed my mind that she didn’t look particularly repentant. Although she spoke in a low voice and her words were urgent, her demeanor was cool, almost nonchalant.

As an observer to this little drama, I didn’t have a decision to make. I wondered fleetingly how our friend would handle it. Here was someone who did something she knew was against the rules and, when caught, devised an intricate plan that required the mercy of a complete stranger to cover it up. Would playing along encourage her to do the right thing the next time she was tempted?

“Nobody needs to lose a job in this economy,” responded our friend. “Don’t worry about the bill. I’ve got it covered.” It was a particularly generous gesture because he himself had himself been struggling through extended unemployment.

She didn’t know his job situation, but our server recognized that she’d been the one served. Her eyes filled. The tension she’d so successfully kept hidden surfaced. “Thank you.”

In the next few minutes we got to tell her a little about why Christians extend grace to people who don’t deserve it. In the telling, I was reminded that I am no different than our server. I have not deserved the grace I’ve received in my life either. Nevertheless, I have been let off the biggest hook of all because Christ paid for my mistakes.

When viewed objectively this kind of grace just doesn’t make sense. It even threatens the moral order of people who want, above everything else, to see the sinful get what they deserve.

It doesn’t really make sense to the one on the receiving end either. And that’s what makes grace so powerful and so wonderful.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God …~ Hebrews 12:15

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When Best Laid Plans Go Awry

During my husband’s first pastorate more than 25 years ago, Barry and I began attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. We enjoyed hearing gifted preachers, discussing trends and movements affecting the church and rubbing shoulders with people who do what we do.

I didn’t make last year’s convention, and this year I returned feeling just a little out of place. In the interim, Barry had transitioned from pastoring an established church to becoming a church planter/pastor. While we love what we’re doing and heartily believe that it may be our most important ministry to date, we are no longer positioned with the pastors we started with in ministry, who are now shepherding large, influential congregations.

The trip got off to a rocky start. Our first flight to Orlando, the convention site, was canceled because of weather. To make it out the next day we had to switch airlines and airports.

We were disappointed that our trip was being cut short, especially when we were losing the morning tentatively set aside for beach and seafood. After we landed in Orlando, I headed to baggage claim while Barry finagled with the airline for an extra day on the back end of our trip. “But there was nothing available,” Barry explained when I re-joined him, suitcase in tow. “It will have to be two more days. Is that okay?”

Two extra days? “But I’ve got work to do. I didn’t plan to be gone that long.” The airline clerk handed us our itinerary. It was out of our hands; we were booked for two extra days.

Orlando brought back lots of memories because we’d lived on Florida Space Coast for six years. As we drove to our hotel, I found myself homesick for our children—the way they used to be: little, lively, loving—each within arm’s reach. I was homesick for the way we were, too: a young couple who knew no fear in ministry. I was beginning to feel like a fraud. People our age were already enjoying the fruits of their labor; we were starting over. “God, really, why are we here?” I had to ask.

Tuesday morning, we’d barely walked through the doors of the convention center when a woman came up to me. I recognized the name on her tag. “Have you got a ticket for the Ministers’ Wives luncheon?” she asked. I didn’t. Feeling so out of place, I was planning on skipping it this year. But I couldn’t turn down the wife of Florida’s executive director.  

The luncheon was just as inspiring as previous years. Our table host pointed out the tote bags full of goodies at each place as well as a New Testament commentary on the table. “One of you will take that home, too,” she said after we each introduced ourselves. At the end of the lunch, she turned to me: “I have a heart for work in pioneer areas, and you are the only one at this table involved in that. I know church planting is hard work. I’d like you to have this.” She handed me the book.

““It is hard work,” I confessed. “But it’s fun, too.”

I rejoined my husband after lunch. “See anyone you know?” In years past, it was hard to move without spotting someone we knew. “Not really,” Barry said. It was as if we truly no longer moved in those circles.

That afternoon, however, we discovered new friends, a couple from Ohio, staying in the same hotel. This pastor had planted a church in Cleveland. Our churches were about the same age and size. As we went to dinner and traded notes, I started to relax. So what if we weren’t on the same plane as others? I know that God has us where He wants us.

After the convention was over, we spent that extra day on the beach and ate seafood at our favorite restaurant just as we promised ourselves. When we tried to fly out of Orlando, however, weather grounded us again. After a few hours, the weather cleared enough for us to board a plane for D.C—but not in time to make our connecting flight. “Nothing until this time tomorrow,” the clerk informed us. Barry and I looked at each other.

We swallowed our frustration, booked new tickets, booked a hotel room, rented a car and went to see the sights. We were stuck in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. “Might as well have fun with it,” we told each other as we headed downtown.

It had been four years since we had an honest-to-goodness vacation, a luxury that transitioning churches, dwindling financial resources and church planting had curtailed. Was God arranging a break that we would not have planned for ourselves?

The trip turned out to be more than a quick three-day hop to Orlando for a convention with a quick excursion to the beach that I had planned. It was extended by circumstances beyond our control to a full-length vacation. Yes, we paid a price—in time, hotel rooms and rental cars—but we found ourselves with friendly people spending time in some of this country’s most intriguing cities. And along the way, we were inspired and refreshed.

As we flew home, I reflected that our life in ministry isn’t really what I’d planned either. Two years ago I would never have dreamed that Barry would take the lead in planting a church. Ministry has been hard work, and the detours God has taken us on have not been without their hidden costs. But I’ve gotta say: It’s been fun, too.

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps ~Proverbs 16:9 NIV