When We Deserve Love the Least
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. -John 1:16
On Saturday I participated in a funeral for Steve Lucas. The Rev. Dr. Stephen W. Lucas served as the senior pastor of the church where I was also on staff as an associate pastor to youth. Steve was a mentor of mine. As I said in his eulogy, Steve treated people with grace upon grace, but, ultimately, he couldn’t offer that same loving kindness to himself.
Steve was chewed up and spit out by some church members. Others didn’t stand up for him when the congregation was going through a tumultuous and divisive time. It burned Steve; “broke” him, as he put it. He turned to alcohol that led to his demise at only 60 years old from sorosis of the liver.
Steve’s funeral was a healing moment, a mixture of celebrating his life while being honest about his inner turmoil with mental health issues and substance abuse. The greatest power in that service was its honesty. It concluded with Steve’s 19-year-old daughter and her mother standing in the pulpit and speaking openly about mental health. They said, “The only thing we would like to ask of you today is to consider your own mental health and how you take care of it. How do you heal when you are hurt? How do you connect when you are lonely? How do you rest when you are tired?” In lieu of flowers, they urged the congregation to give to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Sober Austin, and Community First! It was a pointed reminder of the need to recognize when people are struggling, but to also be as good to ourselves as Steve consistently was to others.
Life can be brutal. With our culture’s insistence on productivity and proving oneself, it can feel like we are walking through a hostile environment where we can never just be ourselves. When someone cannot live up to the standards of a results-driven world or to whatever role our society assigns them, their failure is treated with more eye-for-an-eye punishment than with grace upon grace replenishment. And while we might rise above the toxic temptation to treat others with such harsh expectations, it is often more difficult to treat ourselves with that same God-intended goodness.
Take naps for example. We tend to think of taking a nap as a reward for having done enough. Once we have proven ourselves adequately or reached our productivity quota for the day (or week or month), we might then reward ourselves with a nap. The thing is, though, that rest is not a reward. It is essential for not just our survival but for us to thrive. Rest is detrimental to our physical and mental health, energy level, outlook, creativity, spiritual wholeness, and overall wellbeing. Yet, the fourth Commandment—honor the Sabbath and keep it holy—is the hardest one for us to maintain. (For more on this crucial topic, check out the Nap Ministry at www.thenapministry.com.)
As Steve preached more than once using the metaphor of the plane going down, you don’t put the oxygen mask on the child first, you put it on yourself first. You make sure that you are cared for so that you can take care of others without running out of breath. Putting this in faith terms, God demands justice, yes, but the justice our Creator insists on is restorative, not punitive. We are not only called to treat one another with grace upon grace, but to treat ourselves, first, with that same justice for all our sakes. Self-care is a matter of justice.
Steve was the minister for Stacy’s and my wedding. We celebrated 20 years in January. I’ll never forget what he said to us in that ceremony: “Remember, it’s when we deserve love the least that we need it the most.” I have said those same words to every couple I’ve been blessed to serve at their weddings ever since. Phillip Gulley writes in If Grace is True, “We are free to resist the grace of God, but we are not free to separate ourselves from God’s love.” At times, my friend Steve may have resisted the very grace he relentlessly showed to others, but he was never separated from God’s love, and he is not separated from it now, because, thankfully, love transcends and extends beyond the unjust punishments we tend to inflict upon ourselves. May we all take courage and rest in that assurance.
Prayer: God of grace and glory, I thank you that I am made in your image of gracious compassion and loving kindness. By your grace, then, I pray that you would help me to treat the people and places and situations and circumstances I encounter today with the same grace that you have designed me to treat myself. As you call me to seek justice by restoring my neighbor and the world we share to health and wholeness, not by punishing them with my wayward expectations for an impossible manmade perfection, help me to grant myself that same justice in the same restorative manner. And when the world tells me I don’t deserve rest, turn my ear instead to your voice that instructs me to be still and know that you are God, to love myself to the point of seeking help when I need it, and to always remember that I am your beloved. Thank you for your grace upon grace. Amen.