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The Gift of Grace, A Heart Warming Experience

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This past summer I had the opportunity to take a Clinical Pastoral Education (Chaplaincy) unit at the St. Catharines General Hospital.  The unit is designed to allow those who are enrolled to actively participate within a hospital setting providing spiritual care for patients; but perhaps even more importantly, students are challenged to reflect and understand what it is within themselves that causes them to ask certain questions, and understand why they have particular feelings when certain events unfold around them.  It is basically an eleven-week, full time course that promotes self-growth, so that those who have taken the course can better understand themselves, as well as understanding those to whom they will minister to in their ministry.

            I must admit that when I entered into the course, I was tired.  I had just completed two intense semesters at McMaster and was looking forward to a period of rest, but this was not to be.  I did have a period of not attending classes for about a two-week period, but I decided that I would use this time to study and prepare papers for another course that I knew I was going to be taking immediately following the CPE unit.  After that week long course was going to end, Helga and I had decided to take a vacation with the kids – a vacation that we could enjoy as a family, knowing that the children are growing up and that not all of them want to be seen with mother and father.  I think that many of you know what I am talking about.

            So, in preparation for that week long course that dealt with marriage and family counseling, I began to read books that related to family of origin issues and soon came to the discovery that I was lacking something in my life that I had never been able to identify with – and that was I always viewed God as a judging God.  Because I viewed God as a God of Judgment, I knew that I had a hard time extending grace and forgiveness to not only others, but especially towards myself.  So, this was a learning goal that I chose to strive for while I was at the hospital - to be able to extend grace and to respect the personhood of others and also to extend that to myself. 

            While I was at the hospital, I had countless visits with people from quite varying faith traditions; I calculated that I had somewhere around 500 visits and I did minister to these people in a way that I know that it was God who was at work; and whose power of His Holy Spirit was present ministering to his beloved children.  I know that it was not through my power.  I can remember fondly many of those visits and watching God work in people’s lives as they journeyed through their illnesses and suffering.  For many, the hospital was a place where the last chapter of their life journey took place. I could tell you 500 stories about those visits; hearing how God worked in others peoples lives.  Many times I heard that I had been a blessing to those I ministered to, but truthfully, I know that it was I who received a blessing from hearing their testimonies.

            It was great to be able to have these visits with these wonderful people, people so different from me, and all along I thought that I was being quite accepting of them.  But I wasn’t!  How did I know that?  A part of the course is that we need to write – a lot!  We had to write verbatims, reflection reports, critical incident reports, reports reports reports!  It was through the exercise of writing verbatims, where one has to record a visit without using a pencil or paper or tape recorder and analyze it completely and see what really had transpired.  I quickly realized that I did make statements that showed in an indirect way, statements of judgment against these people.  I really didn’t mean to do this, but I nonetheless did.  I used body language, words spoken, my eyes, etc. to convey what I was thinking. I really believe that many of us do this and are even unaware that we are doing this.  So I decided that I would read some books on the subject.  I read Marcia Fords, The Sacred Art of Forgiveness and Grace, and I read Henri Nouwen’s, The Return of the Prodigal Son.  What powerful books, especially Nouwen’s.  Nouwen states in his book that many of us take on the role of the elder brother as found in the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15.  That many do have a hard time understanding the concept of grace and forgiveness.  I want to read this section from Luke 15, starting at verse 11. 

Story of the Lost Son

11 To illustrate the point further, (previously the lost sheep and the lost coin) Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money on wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs. 16 The boy became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired men have food enough to spare, and here I am, dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired man.” ’

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening in the pen. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the calf we were fattening and has prepared a great feast. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have.’

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ”

            This story is one that we can learn from.  So many of us, like I said, can identify with the elder brother, and cast judgment upon others and refuse to participate in the celebration that we are invited to be a part of, but yet don’t because we think that something is not fair or just.

            Nouwen shares with the reader the Biblical truth that compassion and love can be a part of and really should be a part of how we treat others around us even though fairness may not be present.  Let me share a bit about Nouwen and the journey he embarked.  Nouwen was fascinated with Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal Son that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  For days he sat facing the picture and studied the different expressions on the faces; he studied the bodies and came to the conclusion that the person in the picture that he could identify with the most was indeed the elder son.  I too was the elder son for nearly forty-four years!  I was a black and white type guy.  Fair and unfair; right and wrong.  Isn’t this the way that we are taught to be?  I know that this was my experience of growing up. Nouwen makes the claim, and I believe he is right when he does, that for many of us, we need to take the journey from being the elder son, then becoming the younger son, and then, the ultimate goal is to become like the father in the story; being able to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

            The book is fascinating and quite an interesting read.  In fact, this book is available in our library here at the church and I would highly recommend it to all.  The story of the Prodigal Son really is a story about the compassion and mercy that the father gave to his son, even though he had entered into a sinful life.  It is representative of the love that our heavenly Father has for us too…we too can come to the Father in humbleness and seek reconciliation, and know that it will be granted.

            Well, I read these books, and I found them quite interesting and understood what they were trying to tell me. I knew it all up here in my head, but I still lacked it where it really counted; in my heart.  I prayed to God that I would be transformed and be able to use what I had learned, and really, what I had already known, and to use that information in my relationships with others.  And you know what happened?  Nothing!  Nothing at all happened!  I wondered why this wasn’t happening.  I really was becoming frustrated and thought, why can’t I become more like the Father in this way. But it simply did not happen.

            At the mid-unit meeting for my CPE unit, we all went to Niagara on the Lake and shared with each other our reports that we had written.  I shared with the group my struggles…I told them that I was frustrated…I even was quoting Thoreau and pieces of his book Walden, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life in which he has envisioned, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours, etc. etc.”  I was doing this, so why couldn’t I get grace?  I felt that it should be like a recipe – you know, put in the eggs; the flour; the milk and out come the cookies, and in my case - grace.  But it wasn’t like that. I was really frustrated and a bit put off that I had not received grace.  I did the homework; I felt that I earned it.

It was after I shared my report with the group that one of the women in our group prayed for me.  During her prayer, she mentioned the story of prodigal son, and in the words she spoke she mentioned something about the father that I had never picked up on before.  The father was one who not only held his arms wide open for the son to run into, but also, and this is important; that the father ran towards the son to embrace him.  This point of the father running towards this sinful son was one that was new to me. It was at that exact moment when she spoke those words about the father running towards the son that something happened within me.  My heart was set ablaze with a physical heat so intense that I cannot describe it except to say that I have never in experienced anything like it before.  It was at that exact moment that my heart was set ablaze that all the knowledge of grace and forgiveness that I knew in my head sank eighteen inches and landed in my heart and I finally understood in a spiritual way what grace was all about!  I had received grace! Talk about an ontological experience! (Music lesson example – two kids sit at the piano – one has to study the books to play it while the other just sits down and does it!) Can you imagine!  Here I was, two years into seminary believing that I had it all together and was a good Christian, only to have this wonderful experience and knew that I was missing something.  Just this past year, I was taking a course at the Divinity College when I wrote a paper about the life of John Wesley, a Methodist itinerant preacher who came from England to the southern part of the United States in the 1730’s.  Wesley had been preaching for nine years as a “Christian” minister before he became a Christian in the real sense of the word.  He had attended a bible study which focused on the book of Romans, being held on Aldersgate Street, when he too had an experience that he also states that he had a “strange warming of the heart” and received the gift of grace and understood what grace was all about.  In my paper about Wesley I had argued that Wesley had made this up.  My professor agreed with me and gave me an “A” on the paper.  Now this same experience happened to me.  One of the first people I asked for forgiveness from was Wesley.

            What joy filled my heart after experiencing this event.  I was transformed into a new person.  I had been given a gift, and I call it a gift, that came directly from God.  A gift that I had longed for.  When I had tried to learn that gift, just like the kid who had to study the pages of music at the piano, it simply didn’t happen. I was not able to earn it; but I received it at a time that I had not expected it.  That’s what grace is all about!   Grace a gift that we are really are undeserving of!  We do not earn grace, rather we receive it; and I received grace that day, (June 9th 2006.)  I really was reborn and baptized by the power of the Holy Spirit that day in a powerful way.  It was so life changing and powerful, that I had to mark the event, and this is why I chose to use my middle name as my primary name.  The old person that I once was; is gone, and I felt led by God to use a new name to reflect the new person that God had allowed me to become.  My name is Owen; I have been transformed, I have been redeemed and have been freed from that person that I once was. 

            As for my visitations with patients at the hospital, there was a transformation there as well.  I was able to see others in a completely different light than I had before.  I was willing to accept people who were different from me and not make any judgment calls against them whatsoever.  I was seeing all people as being children of God.  Yes, it is true, I didn’t agree with everything that they were telling me, but I was able to understand and respect people and their viewpoints.  I was now able to look outside my own little box that I lived in, and worshiped in and looked outwards and really saw that I was quite narrow in my thinking.  I could invite others into my world by entering into their world.  In my studies at seminary I have seen that many times churches in particular can be guilty of being exclusive of whom they welcome into their fellowship. I was keenly made aware that we can become unified in community amidst our diversity.  Community amidst diversity is something that God calls his people to be. 

I also became aware that I was not the only one who agonized with grace; especially a lack of grace upon myself.  I heard many patients who were on their deathbeds tell me stories about how guilty they felt about doing this, or not doing that.  I shared my experience with them, and it brought comfort to many who were also able to forgive themselves as well as others who had hurt them, and were able to pass from this life to the next in the blessed assurance of grace and peace.  God’s timing in granting this gift to me was amazing.  Not only was I the benefactor of grace, but so were others because of the gift.  I know that I will continue to carry this gift to others as well throughout my journey.  This has only been the starting point, a point of new birth for me – a real Nicodemus experience.

      God’s grace is not merely a sufficient grace; it is an abounding grace—“that you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). His grace provides our eternal salvation as well as the enablement to know life more abundantly. It is available for our every problem and need.

Sometimes the argument is advanced that since God’s grace covers all our sins, then we are free to live as we please. God’s grace does provide for our freedom, but it is meant to free us from slavery to our selfish, sinful nature in order that we might pursue “every good work”—to become all that God intends us to be.

I share this portion of my journey with you this morning so that you too, if you struggle with the issue of not having grace in your life, or any other struggle that you may have, be assured that with God’s love you can have hope.  God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you on a deeply personal level.  Yes, there is work on our part in entering into that relationship, but please understand this, that all good things comes from God.  It is he, and He alone who gives us these good gifts.  None of us are perfect and without sin.  Close your eyes and imagine yourself running into the loving arms of a loving God who is actually running towards you.          He loves you and He forgives you.  He wants relationship with you! Can you feel that love?  I used to think of asking forgiveness from God as an action of me chasing down a busy God and begging forgiveness and hoping that he might grant it to me; but now I have the assurance that I have a God who runs to me seeking relationship. Ponder upon the words that I have shared with you this morning and I hope that you too will experience grace in the way that God has intended it for us.  God can transform us, even us mid-lifer’s or older in a mighty and powerful way!  As a closing thought, I want to repeat the portion from Luke 15:20b – “And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”

Grace and peace to you all as you reflect upon these words; knowing that with God’s grace, nothing is impossible.  Amen.

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