What Grace Is About

This year marks my thirtieth year of fulltime pastoral ministry. In 1988 I served my first year of fulltime ministry with Dr. Hugh Kirby as the Minister of Youth at First Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia.

However, my ministry started long before then.   I began preparing and preaching sermons at the age of 18.

I came from a tradition where people believed that when God calls you to preach, you should be given a chance–the sooner the better.  Various churches started calling asking me to preach.

I filled in for one church for a month until they found a new pastor.

Then another small country church with about 40 people in attendance asked me to come preach at their church. Word about my “calling” had reached their church through a member that was a beautician in town.   Beauticians are not omniscient, but they know most things that happen in a small town.

She happened to the matriarch of the church. Her son later called and asked me to come preach a sermon. After that, I kept going, morning and evening for two years until I left the area to attend college at Samford University at the beginning of my junior year.

During this time, I was dating Tina, whom I eventually married. Most Sundays she attended church with me.   She supported my commitment to follow God’s calling on my life. This created a strong bond that allowed our relationship to grow. This gave me assurance that she was the person God meant for me to marry. Our marriage began with an unwavering commitment to serve God together.   I knew that she was as committed to the venture as I was and that allowed my love for her to grow.

Over thirty years later, Tina still has the right temperament to be a pastor’s wife. She encourages me without probing me for details regarding meetings or information about conversations I have with people that I regard as confidential.   She serves God in the church without needing attention and she doesn’t worry about life. She’s calm, peaceful, and non-anxious.

There is one exception. While she doesn’t tell me how to do my job, she does tell me how to drive—all the time. Once, I picked her up from church and she was giving me instructions before we could get to our house, a mile and a half away.

But I’m to blame. I know I am. I lost her trust over thirty years ago on a dirt road on the way home from that country church.

Perhaps it had something to do with all those nights we watched the “Dukes of Hazard” together when we were dating, but there was something about taking the dirt road to the church that was kind of like being on a ride at an amusement park. It was fun! In South Alabama, it doesn’t take must to entertain you.

It all started one Sunday when one of the Seller boys told us about the road, just past Pea Creek. (That’s a good Alabama name for a Creek).  He said it was a shortcut.   Perhaps. It didn’t cut time off the trip, but the five miles of dirt road sure were a lot of fun.

Most Sundays Tina and I stopped and picked up three of the Seller children, all boys. I eventually baptized one of them. Occasionally, the mother would send her youngest daughter.  My 1979 Ford Mustang only had room for five, but how do you tell a child she can’t go to church? So Tina strapped her into the front seat with her.   It was not safe or wise, but we were young and doing the “Lord’s work.”

On a hot summer day, we were coming home from church. The Beach Boys Medley was playing on the radio. The windows were rolled down and we were singing, “Round, round get around, I get around, yea,” and we went around a curve too fast.

I’m sure this is the moment Tina lost trust in my driving abilities.   I think this is also the time she believes she was ordained to give driving advice to me for the rest of my life. She had just told me before we went around that curve, “I think you need to slow down.”

The small pebbles on this dirt road created a scenario ripe for disaster. Bo and Luke Duke wrecked a lot of cars but they were always running from the Law.   They’d laugh at a few pebbles on a dirt road.

For me, they kept my tires from getting traction on the road as I went around that curve.   Instead of making the curve, I careened into the high bank the road cut through.   The front left corner made impact first. It turned the car around causing the back right corner of the car to strike the bank next. The car did a complete 360-degree turn and landed back in the middle of the dirt road.

I wasn’t going very fast, but it was fast enough that the impact bent the frame of the car and flattened all four tires.   The insurance company later totaled the car.

As for my passengers, there wasn’t a scratch on anyone.

Above that high embankment was a graveyard and a church where services were no longer held.

It wasn’t lost on me as I exited the car and looked at my surroundings that I could have easily killed my passengers or myself, or greatly injured someone because of my poor judgment.  The graveyard could have claimed any of us that day, but we were spared.

As this occurred before the days of cell phones, I left the children with Tina as I began the run, walk, and run again down the dirt road toward the main highway to get help. It was the longest mile of my life.

I experienced all kinds of emotions while running and walking down that road: fear, dread, thankfulness, anger, guilt, and grief.

I dreaded facing the mother of those children and telling her I had failed to keep her children safe, but thankfully, each one was unharmed.

I dreaded facing my father and Tina’s father and explaining to them what had happened.

I was embarrassed and angry with myself for bringing shame on myself, for ruining my car, most of which I’d paid for, but mostly for putting everyone’s life in danger.

After flagging down a motorist, who contacted our parents, what I experienced next was unexpected.

When they finally arrived, I expected extended lectures about how to drive on a dirt road. I expected anger because I’d messed up and made a huge mistake. I expected a tongue-lashing. What I received were hugs, grace, and forgiveness.

It was the same kind of reception I received from the mother of the children we drove to church.

It was a humbling feeling to be extended that kind of grace. I understood I didn’t deserve it, but that’s what grace is.

I knew it was genuine because the mother trusted us again with her children and my father later helped me get another car.

I had read about the grace of a loving father in Luke 15 who welcomed home a son that had left home and made many mistakes as he wasted all his inheritance. I knew that God had extended his grace to me, because I didn’t deserve His love any more than that son deserved his father’s love, which Jesus described in his parable.

Yet there was something about the feeling of grace those two fathers gave me that day on that dirt road, and that mother gave me from her front porch that will never leave me.

What I learned is that preaching isn’t just about the biblical text. Preaching is often informed by life itself. I’d just not lived long enough to understand that. That day, two fathers and a mother taught me more about grace than any preacher ever had.

Never forget, that whenever any of you live out the teachings of Jesus and put them into action, you are the preacher.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)

Too often when we hear these words and we think of someone in the pulpit. If you do, please rethink them.

Instead, think of all the times someone has shown grace, love, or forgiveness to you, and think of all the ways you can do the same for someone else.